Free & Easy Down the Road I Go
Hickok heads out on the open road.
That Don't Make It Easy Loving Me
He can't help getting into trouble and ends up heading off to parts unknown with an old friend.
Band of Brothers
They say misery loves company, but in Hickok's case, company loves misery.
Every Mile A Memory
Heading for Sweetwater, Hickok and Buck take a trip down memory lane.
Can't Live It Down
His past comes back to haunt him.
Soon As You Can
What would it feel like to have a home to head to?
Hope for Me Yet
Stopping in to visit with the Custer's, James catches a glimpse of the other side of the coin.
Trying to Stop Your Leaving
Back in Rock Creek a young woman's life shatters. Who will pick up the pieces?
The Heaven I'm Headed For
What heaven could be available for a man with his past? Can an old Padre offer advice and counseling?
Prodigal Son's Prayer
Coming home isn't always easy.
Long Trip Alone
Sometimes going it alone is the best way. Sometimes it's all you can do.
Author's Notes: This is set in the year 1870... five years after the War Between the States ended.
Free & Easy Down the Road I Go

The trail was home. Or rather it had been once and now it was going to be again. The trail was open and familiar. The trail was a refuge, not that he’d care to admit it. And now, the trail was going to be his saving grace.

James Butler Hickok pulled himself up into the saddle and headed south out of town in the early hours of the morning. It was Monday and most would be abed at this hour.

With the festivities at church the day before, the dancing, the picnics… it was all enough to put a healthy man down for a day or two, especially when he spent all of his time running away from the truth.

He turned his mount east and headed into the rising sun, pulling his chin down nearly to his chest as he shielded his eyes from the blinding light.

He could hear his own voice naming him coward but he was soon deaf to anything but the pounding hooves beneath him and the wind rushing into his ears.

Leaving most of his belongings behind was easy enough. After all, you have to travel light if you’re going to run free and that’s what he needed most of all. He left behind the responsibilities of a stable life in Rock Creek, needed to feel the way an unfettered man could roam without a care.

On the trail folks didn’t expect you anywhere. Folks didn’t look cross-eyed at you if you didn’t come in at a respectable hour. In fact there weren’t many ‘folks’ about on the trail. Sure, you’ll pass a rider every once in awhile, a wagon with a family moving west, or an army platoon on maneuvers. At the most they’d ask for directions or information and if they were friendly a tip of the hat or a hand raised in greeting was the least exchanged when you pass a body on the road.

So with a few changes of clothes he was on his way, all his cares left behind…

the road and open and inviting mistress stretching before him.

Someday I know it’s gonna take me home
So free and easy down the road I go
That Don't Make it Easy Loving Me

Kat flopped down on the bed beside him. Stretching out on the covers, she bent her arms back over her head and giggled. “You sure know how to make a girl happy.”

He pushed a stray lock of hair away from his face. “Mighty good to hear that.” Jimmy lay back against the pillows and stared up at the ceiling, the paint peeling away from the wood in random patterns.

Kat shifted and laid her head on his chest, her expert fingers scouting out the scars that told his history. “What are we doing tonight?”

Shrugging, Jimmy sighed. “Hadn’t thought that far ahead actually. Why?”

“Well,” she turned to face him, blue eyes dancing with mischief, “we can go to the show.”

“What show?” He tried to shift her over and grab his shirt from the bed knob. He couldn’t reach, so he had to push himself up and out of the bed to get it. When he turned around, Kat had stretched herself languidly across the bed, suddenly occupying the whole thing.

“Buffalo Bill’s Combination.”

“What the hell is that?” Having nowhere to sit, he continued to dress, pulling on his drawers and pants.

“It’s the best new show! It’s wild! You’ll love it…” She pulled at the ribbons that held her shift together and flashed him a little bit of her décolletage, “I promise.”

He was a man of fortitude, but he was still a man. “Promise?”

She twirled her hair around her index finger, “I’d be really grateful, Bill.”

Jimmy watched as she stretched her arm out and took his hand, pulling him back down to the bed. He reached out to cushion his fall with one hand and his other connected with the warm flesh of her naked thigh. “I’ll take you to the damn show… if you give me a taste of your ‘gratitude.’”

“Oooh,” she gave him a hungry smile, “I think I can manage.” She snaked her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

-----

Jimmy and Kat were shown to their seats and he started the evening out grousing about the hard wooden bleachers.

She gave his arm a swat. “Bill!”

“All I’m saying is that with the price I paid for these tickets, there should at least be some comfortable seats.”

Kat was busy with her nose in the program. “This will be wonderful, Bill. You’ll see.”

He barely read through the program. “Buffalo Bill,” he scoffed, “What is he, some kind of a dude?”

She slid her hand down his arm. “Hush, Bill, they can’t all be like you.”

“That ain’t it, Kat. I just don’t like folks makin’ fun of the life we have out here.”

Kat was still reading the program. “Will you look at that,” she gasped, “says here he was an Express Rider like you.”

He shrugged. “I might recognize the man. We’ll see.”

----

Moments later performers rushed into the ring as the band began to play. Kat was immediately enthralled, but Hickok was less so. He spent so much of the first half hour quietly scoffing at the scenarios that played out before them. “What now?”

The torches in the tent had dimmed and Jimmy felt himself groan as the announcer came out to announce the star of the show. “Buffalo Bill Cody!”

“Cody?” Jimmy choked on his tongue. “What? No…” there wasn’t enough air in his lungs, “it can’t be.”

“Hush, Bill.”

He watched as a man in a fringed coat with vibrant embroidery rode in on a beautiful white stallion. He made a trip around the oval ring, his mount high-stepping and his hand rose in greeting to the cheering crowd.

Rider and mount came to a stop in the center of the circle and Cody slid quickly from the saddle, handing the reins off to an assistant. He waved with both hands to the crowd, the long fringe of his gloves danced in the air.

A stage hand ran out into the ring and tossed a rifle at the master of ceremonies. He set the butt of the rifle on his help and held up his hand for silence. “Again, I’d like to thank all of you for coming to see our modest little show and I’d like to end the evening with a dazzling show of marksmanship the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

He reached out an arm to indicate the far side of the oval arena, where no one had been allowed to sit. “We have here a veritable Christmas Tree of delicate glass bottles, chosen for their delightful color.” He shouldered his rifle and chambered a round. “Are you ready?”

The crowd roared and Jimmy sat back on his bench, arms folded over his chest.

Just as the applause was dying down, the barrel of the rifle spat fire. Once… twice… three times and the heart of the tree exploded in a shower of colored glass.

Oohs and aahs filled the air and the corner of Jimmy’s mouth curled up.

“Liked that?”

The crowd cheered Buffalo Bill’s question.

Another volley of shots, ten in all and the rest of the tree laid empty, glass littering the ground beneath the metal stand.

“Want more?”

Again, a rise in volume had Cody waving to the assembly.

It couldn’t be helped, at least not in Jimmy’s head. He had to say something. “What now, ‘Buffalo Bill?’”

Kat pinched Jimmy’s arm. “You’re causin’ a scene.”

“He’s used to it.” He turned his gaze to the arena were Buffalo Bill Cody had his hand flattened over his eyes, shading his vision.

“Well there, it looks like we have an interested party in the audience. Is there anything you’d like to see?”

“Somethin’ a hell of a lot more interesting that shootin’ no damn bottles. Anyone can shoot bottles.”

“Sure? What would be more of a challenge?”

“A playing card.” Jimmy stood up in the audience, “I have a deck right here.”

“Oh, really? What’s the challenge of hitting a playing card?”

“What’s the matter, Cody? Forget how to shoot better than you can brag?”

Cody backpedaled a bit, seemingly reeling from the suggestion. The crowd reacted in a plethora of ways. Most seemed to take exception to the suggestion that Buffalo Bill wouldn’t be up to snuff in a competition.

Bill, seemingly recovered, moved closer to the stands. “Who is that?”

Jimmy gloated. “Goin’ blind too?”

Kat slapped his leg and hissed at him. “Sit down!”

“I don’t think I like your tone, sir.”

“I love you too, Cody.” He was openly laughing at his old friend, especially when it seemingly dawned on Cody in a flash.

“Hickok? Is that you up there?”

“Yeah. Someone dragged me to your show.”

“Oh?” Cody took the dig in stride, “Then drag your ol’ carcass down here and take pot shots at me in person.”

“I ain’t goin’ down there.”

“Then shut up and sit down,” hollered another patron.

Jimmy gave him a look that spoke volumes, quieting down a number of folks between them.

“Don’t make me call you out, Hickok.”

“You won’t survive drawin’ down on me, Cody.”

“Not on you, Hickok… it ain’t always about you.” The crowd erupted with hissing and rude calls that had Jimmy’s temper up to the boiling point. “What do you say folks,” Cody raised his free arm to the audience, “shall we have my old friend here come down to the arena and dazzle us with his prowess?”

The cheers were now for him, rather than against him and Jimmy found he didn’t like it either way. “The hell with you, Cody.”

“I’m sorry,” Cody cupped a hand to his ear and leaned closer. It was all theatrics but the crowd loved it. “You said I’ll be right with you Cody?”

The crowd dissolved into laughter and loud whistles. It was a moment of decision, one that Hickok knew he’d regret, but he figured that Cody’s next verbal volley would most likely be to call him a coward; he wasn’t going to let it get that far.

So he went.

After the first patron that he had to step over to get down toward the arena, the rest of the folks between him and his goal moved aside and watched him descend step by step.

A couple of crew members came over to open up the portion of the fence closest to Hickok, allowing him entrance to the arena. Cody waited in the middle. Finally extending his hand to Hickok when he was less than a few feet away as the two old friends clasped hands the crowd cheered. “I’m gonna get you for this, Cody.”

“You just try, Hickok… you just try.”

“I just wanted to introduce all of you to my old friend, James Hickok.” Cody had raised his voice to a near shout and Jimmy barely stopped himself from covering his ears.

“Ain’t that Wild Bill?”

Kat stood up in her seat and waved at him. “That he is, folks… at least in bed!”

----

The show was a raging success, at least that’s what Cody kept telling him… before every toast. They’d retired a few bottles since they’d begun their impromptu party and both Bill’s were beyond caring what Kat was going to say about Jimmy’s sudden disappearance.

“I’ll have you know,” Jimmy began, pointing his finger nearly at his friend, “that she had promised to be very grateful if I took her to the show.”

“Well,” Cody raised his glass, “You took her to the show. Too bad she went home with someone else.”

“You sure?”

Cody nodded sympathetically. “So sorry to say it, but yes. Watched her curvaceous little behind waltz itself out of the tent with her arm linked through the arm of two… yes… two well dressed men.”

Jimmy held out his glass and Cody gave him a healthy refill. “Well, then, here’s to a big ol’ waste of money.”

Cody paused, the glass nearly to his lips. “Waste?” He tossed back the drink and nearly dropped it on the table. “It wasn’t a waste and you know it.”

“How?” Jimmy’s expression had gone sour.

“You found me, didn’t you?”

“Well,” scoffed Jimmy, “you may be pretty, Billy Cody, but given the choice between you and Miss Kitty Kat… there really is no choice.”

“That’s right, it would be me!”

Jimmy held up a hand as if to ward off Cody’s heavy ego. “Right. No!”

“Fine, but really, what are you doing with the lovely Kitty? Don’t you have a little things going with-”

“You just mind your own business, Cody and leave me to mine. What would Louisa say about you even ‘knowin’ the kitty’s name?”

“That’s why it’s good that she stayed behind in Kansas and I’m here… running things in the show.”

“Ohhh. I guess that works… especially if you’re enjoying the life on the road. No rules, eh Cody?”

Cody poured another slosh of whiskey into their glasses. “That’s the problem when you’re a travelin’ man, Hickok. It’s hard to keep ties with a woman… no matter how much you love her. Even if I didn’t touch the lovely Kat, all I would have to do is be seen in her presence and some dang blasted newspaper story would flood the wires that I was seeing the woman and five others like her.”

Picking up a silver frame from the table at his side, Cody looked longingly at the photo. “Louisa loves me, Hickok and I love her too. I just don’t… like to live by too many rules… we’re alike in that way, Hickok. We both need our space and Louisa – Lou... she knows what to expect. She’s not going to walk into anything without her eyes wide open.”

A knock at the train car door, interrupted their discussion. “Come on in if you’ve got something to drink!” The metal door swung open on heavy hinges and Cody could nearly manage to lift himself a few inches off of the seat cushion to see who it was. “Ned!”

The man wore a wrinkled suit and a battered hat that was only a shade more weathered than his face. “Good to see you again, Cody. Brilliant show tonight.”

“Hickok, this here is Ned Buntline, novelist.”

“Dime novelist.” Jimmy tossed back his whiskey with a grimace.

“Well then,” he cleared his throat, “I can see that you’ve heard of me.”

Jimmy didn’t really spare him more than a glance. “That isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

Ned settled into a chair and looked to Cody for reassurance. “Hickok’s first experience with a dime novel spawned that whole series by J.D. Marcus.”

“Aaaah.” Ned took the offered glass and gave Hickok a nod. “Sorry about that.”

“Not as sorry as I am.”

He leaned forward and tried to catch Hickok’s gaze. “You should let me write for you. The books I did for Cody here…huge success! He’s nearly a house hold word!”

“What does that do for you, Cody?”

The blond man shrugged. “It gets my name out there, get folks to buy tickets… it’s gonna make me a rich man.”

“Right.” Jimmy picked up the bottle that Buntline had brought in with him. “I think my name is more famous than I’d like it to be right now. Puttin’ out a bunch of books ain’t gonna do anything more than make the problem worse.”

Ned shook his head. “We could put out the truth, Hickok, make people see what it’s like to be you.”

Hickok shook his head. “No one wants to read the truth.”

Shrugging, Ned reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He handed it over to Hickok who read the top line aloud. “Ned Buntline, Novelist.” He held it up into the lamplight. “You mean. Paid liar.” Jimmy pressed his fingers to his temples and let out a groan.

Cody laughed. “Gettin’ too old for this much fun, eh, Hickok?”

“Shut your mouth, Cody.” He leaned his head back against the chair and wiggled around until he was somewhat comfortable. “I’m still able to drink you under the table.”

“Right, Hickok. Tell me another one.”

Ned couldn’t help but laugh at Jimmy’s expense. “You want me to wake him up?”

“Naw, just let him rest… boy’s had a hard night.”

That might make for a good story, man
But that don't make it easy lovin' me
Band of Brothers

“Wake up, Hickok.”

Jimmy felt someone grab onto his blanket and he managed to keep the woolen covering up where it could do some good. “Back off, Buck.”

“You can’t sleep the morning away.”

“Watch me.” Jimmy pulled the edge of the blanket over his head.

He heard the laughter, quiet… muffled. Still, he knew that silly laughter anywhere. “Damn it, Cody…”

That’s when it happened. “Hickok, get up and out of bed… you got the next run!”

Jimmy threw the blanket off as he launched himself out of bed to grab for his clothes.

He froze in mid stride when reality hit him square between the eyes. The Cody show… the drinking… the train car. A quick survey of the walls and Jimmy knew what had happened. “My head.”

“Yes,” Buck moved closer, trying to look past the lengths of hair that swung before Jimmy’s face, “you still have one, although it might be a little clouded after last night.”

“We had a few drinks.” Cody pulled the drapes open on one of the train windows and Jimmy ended up squinting into the light.

“I gathered that.”

Taking stock of his fortitude and the simple arrogance it took to stay upright with the kind of hangover that he had, Jimmy managed to turn his head to look at his friend. “You got old.”

Buck laughed at the ‘compliment.’ “Flattery, who knew you were capable?”

“What are you doing in Carver Springs?”

Cody caught Buck’s confused look and bent over with a fit of laughter. “You owe me!”

“What?” Jimmy looked over at Buck’s sour expression. “What did I miss?”

Reaching into his suit coat, Buck drew out a handful of coins. “Just a week’s worth of wages changing hands thanks to you.”

Taking pity on his friend, Cody clued him in. “Sometimes only folks that win a bet can be good sportsmen about it.” Slipping the coins into his pocket, Cody tilted his head toward Buck who was looking around the train car with more than a hint of curiosity. “I bumped into Buck this morning at the train station. He was just getting into town and I told him I’d met up with you last night.

Cody poured himself a glass of juice from a decanter on the table and took a sip. “So I bet him that you’d be a little… foggy on the details of where we were and Buck… well he had more faith in you than I. He thought you’d remember the three hundred miles we traveled last night.”

Taking another sip, Cody nearly choked on the juice as a snort of laughter caught the liquid in his throat. “I do believe that is the first bet I’ve won off of you, Buck.”

Their friend flopped down in a brocade chair against the wall. “It will definitely be the last.”

“Sorry, Buck.” Jimmy gave his old friend a shrug, but instantly paid the price for the sudden movement. He grabbed his head in both hands and groaned. “I guess I’m not as young as I’d like to be.”

“Don’t say that. We’re all getting up in years.” Cody handed Buck a cup of juice. “We’re all turning old before our times… it’s all this hard living.”

“Speak for yourself, Cody.” Buck put his cup back down on the table at his side. “I’m enjoying my life.”

The train car door opened and three service employees from the train company entered with trays of food. Jimmy’s face was green from the moment the first tray passed by his chair.

Buck and Cody didn’t let the moment pass by unnoticed. “Looks like there’s more for us.”

Grinning, Buck shrugged his shoulders, “We should probably save something for him. You know how Jimmy gets when he doesn’t have anything in his stomach.”

Jimmy groaned and grabbed at a biscuit on a passing tray. “I doubt I could take anything more than bread right now.” He stuffed a large part of the biscuit in his mouth and continued. “Ammy way… Aye mm smill hummry.” Another swipe of his hand and Jimmy had a muffin on his plate.

The young man carrying the tray paused for a moment to stare at the man munching away on a buttery muffin. “Wah…wah… Wild B…”

“Another one lost to hero worship.” Buck shook his head and put a hand over his heart and rolled his eyes to the sky.

“Worship? Ha!” Cody chortled and pointed out something he observed. “Do you see the poor man’s knees knocking? He’s most likely fearing for his life if he but breathes on Hickok’s food.”

“Shut it, Cody.” Hickok gave the server a half smile and took the offered plate in his hand. “Thanks.”

“Shhhuuure.” The man gave an uncomfortable smile and shot a look to Cody. “Mr. Cody?”

“What, Reggie?” He looked over at Hickok, shoveling food into his face and gave a little sigh. “You can go… we’ll call when we need the plates removed.”

Reggie was out the door before the other two could even take a step. Hickok didn’t wait for his friends to make their comments; his look sentenced them to silence as he shoved a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

A young woman stepped into the open doorway, a stack of folders clutched to her chest. “Mr. Cody, I’m sorry to bother, but the cowboys have a few questions on the new re-enactment that you’re adding in the show.”

He looked at both of his friends, his confusion written plainly on his face.

“Don’t sit here on our account. Jimmy?” Buck looked to their friend for confirmation. Jimmy waved a dismissive hand and went back to his eggs.

“Well,” Cody stood up from his chair and straightened his suit, crossing the small room with a step and a half, “go ahead and eat and I’ll be back in a few minutes after I get these boys in line.” With a wink and a mock salute, Cody disappeared into the morning bustle outside the train car.

A moment after he left, Hickok raised his head. “Can you believe this?”

Buck paused over his mug of coffee, taking another sip before setting it down on the table. “Breakfast? The Train?”

Hickok set his fork down and gave a little sigh. “Either… both, I guess. I remember Cody and all his grand plans… the acting thing… the footlights. I guess it’s just strange… knowing it happened for him.”

“Have you seen the show?”

He heard the curiosity in Buck’s voice and gave him a grimace. “It’s very… Cody.”

Pausing mid-bite, Buck raised a brow. “That bad, huh?”

“It’s got promise. He sure knows how to put on a show.”

“I’ve read reviews.”

Jimmy stretched his legs out and gave a long yawn. “Exactly where have you been, Buck?”

Sitting forward in his chair, Buck gave Jimmy an odd little look. “A little bit of everywhere.”

“Well, that was helpful.” The sarcasm in Jimmy’s voice was contradicted by the smile on his face.

“What about you, Jimmy? Are you roaming the world at the drop of a hat? Where do you call home?”

Jimmy looked out the window and pushed at the soft curtains to get a better view. “I guess if I had to give someone a place to send my mail, it would be Rock Creek.”

“There? Really?”

“Why not?” He picked up his coffee cup and set it aside when he realized it was empty. “It’s as good a place as any. Rachel’s still there.”

“Teaspoon?”

Jimmy shook his head and pushed at the end of his fork, watching it plow through the remains of his eggs. “He’s off in some little town in Arizona, probably trying to run everyone’s lives.”

Buck nodded. “He’s good at that.”

“Yeah.” Jimmy let out a breath and smiled. “A dream job for him if you ask me.”

“And you? Were you serious about Rock Creek? What keeps you there?”

Instantly his mind recalls the very reason he stayed… the very reason he left… soft brown eyes and an even softer smile; when he could coax one out of her.

She hated breakfast. Didn’t like being up so early after her long nights, but she got up every morning and sat with him making small talk over the paper… avoiding each other’s curious glances. It was a dance that he loved and hated all at the same time.

“Jimmy?”

The sound of Buck’s voice jogged him from his thoughts, pulling into the present and away from anything unsettling… uncomfortable. “You know, you never did say,” he ignored the hard look in Buck’s eyes, “what are you doing these days?”

“I thought I said…”

“No-” Jimmy was adamant, “you didn’t say.”

Buck looked toward the doorway, as if he expected someone to appear. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Too late for that.”

“Don’t push me.”

“Then spit it out.”

Buck picked his napkin off of his lap and dropped it on the table. “I spent the better part of the year scouting around for a writer from New York.”

“A writer? It’s not one of them-”

“No dime novels, Jimmy. He wrote about the West. The Frontier. Indians.” He couldn’t hide the sour tone that colored his last word and even if he could have, he knew that Jimmy would have seen his feelings on his face. “He wanted someone to show him the way things are out here so that he could tell people about it in his stories.”

Jimmy nodded. “But you said ‘wrote’. What happened? You finally got fed up with him and dropped the man off a cliff?”

Buck gave a little chuckle. “It wasn’t anything so dramatic. I swear, Hickok, you’re getting to be as fanciful as Cody is. Mr. Hammond took a liking to rotgut and finally he found a batch that got the better of him. I buried the man on a Tuesday and by Sunday, I found myself taking his article… my article to the telegraph office and having them send it through.”

He looked up and saw Hickok’s careful expression, filled with curiosity. “His editor liked it; really liked it and I know I should have said something right then, but fifty dollars was enough to keep my mouth shut and my hands busy. Writing.”

“Fifty? Hell, Buck, for that kind of money, I’d scribble a little something together.”

“That’s why I haven’t… said anything, Jimmy. I should have told his editor that the man died, face first in a woman’s bed and left it at that.”

“But you got bit by the bug.”

“That’s right. I remember how much hell we gave Cody when he wrote that story about us.”

“It’s not the same thing, Buck, and you know it.” Jimmy pushed himself up and out of his chair, moving to the sideboard to pour a little water into the bowl before splashing it on his face. “Cody made fools of us all with that story. I’m sure that’s not what you do, Buck.”

Slowly, his old friend shook his head. “No, that’s not what I do.”

“Show me.”

“What?” Buck looked shell-shocked. Jimmy should know he’d seen it before. “What do you want me to-”

“I want to read one of your articles.”

Buck fished through his satchel, even if his tone was dismissive. “You mean one of Elliot Hammond’s articles.” He found what he was looking for and nearly shoved it into Hickok’s hands.

Jimmy found his way back into a chair, his eyes and thoughts locked onto the papers in his hands. He read through each line, hearing for the first time the real thoughts of his friend, realizing how far Buck had gone since the end of the Express, how far away from him his friend had grown.

When he was done he rearranged the pages and handed them back to Buck, his eyes following the transfer from one man to the other. When Buck had shoved the article back into his satchel, Jimmy waited to catch his weary gaze. “Tell them.”

“Tell them… tell who? No… absolutely not.” Buck waved a hand to ward off Jimmy’s arguments, but Hickok wasn’t hearing it.

“You have to tell them that it’s you writing these articles.”

“Right and then what? Go back to scouting for the Army? I don’t want to hunt down people to make my way, Jimmy. You should understand that.”

“I do,” Jimmy gave Buck an encouraging look, “but you owe it to yourself to tell them…”

“And when I lose my job?”

“They wouldn’t dare.”

“Right, Hickok. Why wouldn’t they fire me for lying to them after burying their original writer and taking over for him? What would stop them?”

He gave his friend a wicked grin and shrugged. “I’m Wild Bill Hickok. That should strike the fear of God into them… Tell them that I’d be very angry if you were fired.”

“Oh great, threatening them… that would help.”

“Anything for a friend.”


Well we ain't no rookies it's our third tour of duty
but that's all right…
Me and my band of brothers got you covered
Every Mile a Memory

Sweetwater. Sweetwater. While there was nothing inherently sweet about the water that came from the creek or the pond, there was a certain quality to his memories of the place.

When they’d left to move to Rock Creek, it had taken a large adjustment from everyone. There was something nice about having the Station outside of town. Having a chance to go back, even for a little while could be a great decision, or it could destroy his memories to see the town… changed.

“Hate to interrupt your thoughts here, Hickok, but do you remember the way to Sweetwater?”

Snapping out of his reverie, Jimmy looked over at Buck riding along beside him and gave him a grin. “Yes, I remember, I’m just taking a… a different route.”

“Are we heading to Sweetwater or Canada?”

“What? You don’t like the scenery?”

Buck settled back into his saddle and looked at the field of cacti that swallowed up both sides of the valley around them. “I’m all for a trip down memory lane, but why does it always have to involve cactus?”

“Picky aren’t we?”

Shaking his head back and forth Buck gave Jimmy a long suffering look. “Why take this way back?”

Jimmy shifted in his saddle, lifting his face up into the afternoon sun. “I dunno, Buck. Sometimes for a man to know where he’s going, he has to find out where he comes from.”

There was silence from his old friend and then laughter. A snigger, a chuckle and finally gut busting laughter. He looked over in time to see Buck throw his head back and rein his horse to a stop before spooking the poor creature.

A few feet ahead, Jimmy circled around. “What?”

“I think it’s funny. You go off, join the Army-”

“I was a scout, not a soldier.”

“And then a few years camping out in Rock Creek… now, you’ve become a philosopher of some sort roaming the hills looking for your past?”

“Well, when you put it that way, it seems fairly stupid.”

“No,” Buck eased his mount forward and gave Jimmy a quirky grin, “I’m just not used to you being so…”

“So, what?”

Buck rode on ahead a little bit and looked over at Jimmy when he rode up along side. “Different, maybe a bit-”

“If you say older, I’m going to have to draw down on you.”

“Oh so its fine for you to say it, but when I-”

Jimmy rode past him, turning in his saddle to fire back. “So this is revenge for that crack I made when I saw you in the railcar?”

“Not revenge.” Buck moved his horse around a copse of sagebrush and then back up alongside his friend. “Payback. You have to fall asleep sometime, Hickok.”

* * * *

They made good time, cutting across the flats and letting their horses have their way in the washes. The trail Jimmy was looking for appeared on the horizon midway through the day. “You sure I can’t convince you to come with me?”

Buck smiled and shook his head. “I’d love to see Emma and Sam, but I’ve been thinking… about what you said, and I think you’re right. I should-”

Realizing that he was alone, Buck reined in his mount and looked back on the trail. His lips pressed into a thin line as he looked back at his friend, clutching onto his saddle horn, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “What?”

“You said… I was right.”

Sighing, Buck stared at him. “Yes, I did. I said you were right. Grow up, Hickok.”

The laughter dissipated and Jimmy held up his hand to wave off Buck’s anger. “I just… it’s just a novel idea that you think I’m right.” He paused for another moment. “About what?”

Buck turned toward the trail again and rode off along the well worn road. “Never mind!”

“Wait!” Jimmy rode up hard on Buck’s heels. “You’re gonna tell them!”

His gaze focused on the road ahead, Buck nodded. “Yes, I’m going to Saint Joseph. My… ah, Editor… is scheduled to be there for a few weeks. If I ride straight through I’ll get there before he leaves.”

Jimmy rode alongside. “When he tells you everything is fine and you still get to write for them, you make sure you come on down to Rock Creek and say hello. You’ll find there are a few friendly faces to visit.”

They slowed, each extending a hand to an old friend. The shake was warm, firm… so very familiar. A good memory to hold onto.

Buck gave him a wide grin. “You ride safe, Hickok and if we’re both lucky I’ll see you in Rock Creek in a few weeks.”

Jimmy turned his mount to the West and moved a few paces off before he returned the farewell. “I’ll see you there, old friend.”

With a wink Jimmy launched his horse into a gallop, his laughter trailing behind.

* * * *

It would have been easy. So very easy for Buck to turn his mount around and rejoin Jimmy on the trail. At least with Emma and Sam he could be sure of his reception. St. Joseph, on the other hand was the patron saint protecting against doubt or hesitation, so…

Tucking his chin down, he rode into the wind, his mind on the confrontation ahead.

His horse carried him alone the rough trail, picking its way through the rocky pathways climbing up the hills. It wasn’t an easy traverse, but Buck trusted his horse with his life and all he had to do was hold on tight and wait.

It wasn’t long before he was relaxing into the ride, his mind on his destination, words rolling through his mind. Words forming sentences, sentences into paragraphs; themes followed, summaries, closing thoughts all bouncing off the insides of his head.

A moment later he was grabbing for the saddle horn, legs squeezing around the sides of his sorrel’s barrel chest. “Hey there… whoa, whoa!”

The horse listened only too well and Buck had to scramble not to go over his mount’s head. He had to laugh at least to himself, he was glad that Jimmy wasn’t there to see him-

“That’s not what I remembered.”

Buck pulled his gun from its holster; bringing it to bear on the man in the path ahead of him. “Who are you?”

The man was small in the shoulders, height probably near his own. The man had no horse, only a saddle bag slung over his shoulder, worn and tattered just like his clothes. “That’s no way to say hello-”

“Just let me pass.” Buck’s thoughts were warring with his senses. There was something familiar in this man, but it was like a shadow in the back of his mind, he couldn’t quite bring it to the light.

The man turned his head to the side and gave him a smile beneath the wild growth of beard. “You never used to be so jumpy. What happened to you?”

Buck looked past the years of strain on the man’s face, took in the pinched skin about his eyes and looked into the soul beyond. Lost though it was, there was enough left that it struck a chord within his own soul, called to the forefront a face. The face of a friend.

“It’s you.”

Funny how no matter where I run
Round every bend I only see
Just how far I haven't come
Can’t Live it Down

The past is a tough taskmaster and good news spreads slowly in the West.

The town of Carlton literally sprang up out of the dust beside the old Pony Express trail and while Jimmy was in a hurry to get back to Sweetwater, he knew Emma would appreciate if he stopped for a few hours and took advantage of the bath house he saw at the end of the street.

The water was warm and the soap didn’t quite scrape away all of his skin, so as far as he was concerned this was a welcome break.

He’d given Mr. Chung fits when he’d insisted on taking a short bath. The man had run himself ragged washing his clothes and he had taken the hot iron to it instead of putting them out under the sun to let them dry.

The man had offered him a hearty meal and a pipe, but Jimmy had other thoughts.

Taking his jacket from the man’s outstretched hands he put a few coins back in and gave a little bow in thanks. The man’s wife promptly took the coins and plopped them into her apron pocket.

He tipped his hat on the way out and blinked into the blazing late afternoon sun.

“Excuse me. Son?”

“Son?” Jimmy blinked and stared at the approaching figure. “I ain’t your son.”

“And who would you be?”

He shrugged on his jacket and sighed. “Stoppin’ through on my way to-”

“You’re Hickok?”

Jimmy let out a sigh. He had that horrible feeling in his stomach. He should have ridden through. “That is my name, but-”

“What’s your business here?”

“A bath. A meal. I take it that it’s too much to ask?” Jimmy started to walk past the man, looking at his Sheriff’s badge, not bothering to hold his breath.”

The man drew his weapon and Jimmy stopped in his tracks.

“Come on!” Jimmy moved his hands and the older man raised the gun so it was level with Jimmy’s head.

“Keep your hands away from them guns.”

“I’m not going to use ‘em… I’m just here for a rest and them I’m on my way.”

“Well, that may be, son,” the older man nodded over his shoulder, “but you’ll be stayin’ for a few days.”

“No,” Jimmy shook his head emphatically, “I’m off to visit friends.”

“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear, but I’m gonna take you over to the jail and get you set up for the night.” The man took pity on him and continued on. “You see, when you stopped in to board your horse, Bob remembered your face from one of my posters in the jail. He came to get me.”

“So, the man in the bath house… he was keepin’ me around so you could have the chance to arrest me?”

“No,” the sheriff shook his head with a laugh, “that old fool ain’t smart enough to understand somethin’ like that. No yellow man can be trusted worth a damn.”

Jimmy shook his head. “At least they picked a man smart enough to understand a sensitive situation like this one.”

The man narrowed his gaze at the gunfighter. “Quit yer talkin’ and start walkin’ Hickok.”

*****

“It’s you.”

The laughter in return was unexpected. Not because of the source, but the empty look that shone from the eyes that were once warm with life. “It’s been a long time.” He cleared his throat, I didn’t think… I didn’t expect you to remember-”

“Of course I remember…”

*****


Jimmy turned around in the cell and watched the Sheriff set the lock on the door. “I told you, that charge was dropped!”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that, boy. All I know is that poster came across my desk nearly two months ago and for that kind of bounty, a man pays attention.”

“It’s about the money. It doesn’t matter to you that I’m innocent and the poster is old.”

“Old or not, I’m holdin’ you until someone tells me different.”

“Really?” Jimmy sat down on the bunk and leaned back against the bars. “Well then you should send a message to Marshal Sam Cain.”

“The Territorial Marshal?”

“Is that good enough word for you?”

“Sure, but what will that do for you, son?”

“He can tell you. He can tell you that I’m not wanted. Get a message to him, you’ll see.”

The older man gave him a sneer. “I’m the law around here and I decide what I’m gonna do.” He turned around and walked right out of the office without so much as a backwards glance.

******

Buck didn’t know what to do. Run after him and keep him there, if only for a few more moments. “Where are you going?”
He turned, shrugging in answer, a slight smile twisting up the corner of his mouth. “Somewhere. Anywhere? Moving on seems like a good idea.”

“Not yet.”

The smile on his friend’s face faded. “Why not? Seems like a good idea to me.”

Buck stared back at him. “Fine, you go where ever you like, but you know what I’m going to ask. You know, don’t you?”

“You want to know where she is.”

*****

Jimmy woke up to a familiar sound. His Colt’s cartridge spun around again and again and again. Sitting up on the bunk he looked through the bars and barked out an order “Put it down.”

The man turned around in the chair and used the end of the barrel to push up his hat brim. “I’ll do what I damn well please.” Jimmy saw the star on his shirt but that didn’t serve to make him feel better. If he was anything like the Sheriff this was going to be about as productive as watchin’ grass grow.

“Those are mine. They ain’t toys.”

“I know they’re yours, Wild Bill,” he nearly choked on the name, but he continued on, “and if I want to look at ‘em, I will. I know what they’re for.”

“Right.” Jimmy grit his teeth and leaned back against the bars. “Sure you do.”

“You gunfighters are all alike. Put a gun in your hand and you think you’re some kinda god.” His smile was no comfort. “Take away your guns and you’re nothin’.”

“Well, that’s no way to speak to the man, Cal.” Jimmy turned his gaze to the doorway. A young woman stood there with a tray in her hands.

“He’s a murderer, Ida, There’s nothin’ to say beyond that fact. We caught him and we’re gonna hang him.”

She paused by the bulletin board on the wall, littered with what looked to be hundreds of posters. “And collect the bounty, is that right?”

Cal shrugged. “That’s the way of things, Ida. We’re in rough country and criminals come with a price.”

“That maybe Calvin Hastings, but we’re still in a country that has laws and you can’t hang him until he’s had a trial… and while my given name is Ida, a fine man worth their weight in salt would know how to address me.”

She put the tray on the ledge in the cell door that had been left open for just such a purpose. “Good evening. Mr. Hickok. I’m here with your supper.”

“And you are?” He stood as he addressed her, giving her a small bow from the waist that had the deputy nearly knocking over his chair in an attempt to save face.

“I am Ida Holden.”

*****

“Where is she?” There was a moment when Buck wanted to walk away before he got the answer. Walk away just because he didn’t like the hollow soul staring out of familiar eyes. “Why are you making me ask?”

Again the shrug. “I guess, I’m not the only one who doesn’t know.”

*****

Jimmy lifted up the napkin and looked back up at the young lady standing before him. “There’s two plates here.”

She threw a look over her shoulder. “Why so, there are.” Turning back to Jimmy she smiled. “The other plate was intended for the good deputy but seeing as he is playing with firearms and hasn’t washed up, then I guess his food will just have to go to waste.”

Looking down at the food and then back up at the young woman before him he shrugged. “Or, you could pull up a chair and have supper with me, Miss Holden.”

“What a grand idea.” She folded her hands before her and looked at the Deputy standing near his desk. “Deputy Hastings, if I might… borrow your chair?”

“But that’s my food!”

“You can go and fetch another plate from my mother’s kitchen. Tell her that I said you can have mine.”

“She won’t like that you’re eattin’ with no prisoner.”

“She wouldn’t much like me having my supper with a man that doesn’t have the decency to offer a lady a chair, either. I‘ll have to take my chances that Mama will be happy that I sat down with a man who has some manners.”

He grumped and he groused, but Deputy Cal Hastings brought her his chair and stomped out of the office in search of a meal.

*****

“What? Don’t you know?” He turned and walked away.

Buck watched him leave, his lips pressed together in a tight line. He didn’t bother running after him. Didn’t bother to ask him anything any more. Friends didn’t turn their backs on one another.

*****

Jimmy woke up in a worse mood than the day before. The Sheriff had left him with the worst news possible. Marshal Cain wasn’t in Sweetwater and he wasn’t in Omaha, the cable he’d sent had come back returned with the apologies from the current deputy in charge. He himself could neither confirm nor deny the warrant out for Hickok.

He’d been in no hurry to wake up Deputy Hastings and ask for a turn at the facilities. He was in no mood for more words of wisdom from the mongrel pup they’d hired as law in this town.

Stretching back out on the hay stuffed mattress he flung an arm over his eyes.

“Hey.”

Jimmy looked up and squinted at the sun coming through the prison window. “Hey yourself.”

*chew chew* “You arrested?”

Jimmy looked from one side of the cell to the other, across the hay-strewn floor. “Looks like.”

“How old are you?”

It took a minute for the boy to think about it, but he never stopped chewing. “Ten, I guess.”

“You must be right tall for a boy your age if you can see in through the window.”

“Naw.” *chew chew*

“Then how’d you get up there?”

*gnaw snap* “Boxes.” *chew* “Standin’ on ‘em.” *swallow* The boy fixed him with a stare. “Heard you killed someone.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy’s fingers worked at his temples, struggling to release the pain that came with sunlight and the over zealous chewing that was threatening to send him over the edge.

“You’re gonna die, huh?”

Jimmy’s hand dropped into his lap. “Eventually.”

There was a moment of silence. Well, silence filled with *chewing and swallowing*.

“You gonna eat all of that while you stand there?”

The boy looked at the ripped end of his licorice whip and then back at Jimmy. “Could be.” He snapped off another piece between his teeth. “What’s it to ya?”

“It’s hurting my head. Would you stop?” He tried not to keep his voice level, but he couldn’t help the rise in his volume. Not only did it not make the boy back down, it only hurt his head as the ache intensified.

“Don’t matter none.” The boy grinned, black licorice visible between his teeth even in the shadows. “You’re gonna hang.”

“Not if I can prove they dropped the charges.”

“Huh?” The boy paused in his masticating and looked at the caged man with real interest. “How’re you gonna do that from inside a cell?”

“That’s what I need to figure out.”

The boy shrugged, momentarily blocking some of the blinding light from the window. “Well, if’n you figure it out, let me know. I like a good tale every now’n then.”

Jimmy opened his mouth to let the boy have it, but he missed his chance. “Zachariah Henderson! What are you doing up there on that ricketly old box?”

The boy disappeared and he heard something that sounded like mumbling.

“I don’t care if we had Billy the Kid himself in the jail cell, your mama would have kittens if she knew you were balancing on your tiptoes up there. One good strong wind and you would have been laid out, your head cracked open on the ground.”

There was the briefest moment of silence before she continued. “Now you march yourself off to home and you can tell your mother what you’ve done. If not, I’ll be more than happy to stop by and let her know myself.”

“Yes’um.”

He heard that clear enough, in fact, when Miss Ida walked into view from the outer office he got to his feet and straightened his clothes.

“That won’t do.”

Jimmy gave her a quizzical look. “Sorry?”

“Your clothing. It’s dreadfully wrinkled. And, if my eyes don’t deceive me, I think you’re wearing the same thing.”

Shrugging, Jimmy looked around the rest of the cell. “They took all my things. Haven’t really had the chance to do much more than splash some water on my face and wash my hands before eattin’.”

“Deplorable, really.” She gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s as though they’ve already convicted you and found you wanting.”

He didn’t have much to say at that point. He was puzzled enough as it was. “Thank you, I think.”

“Then again, I can’t really begin to feel sorry for you until you’ve answered a question for me.”
Jimmy leaned against the bars on the side of his cell, waiting.

She fished into her basket and pulled out a copy of ‘Wild Bill Brings Death to the Plains.’ “Is this… man, you?”

Scratching at his brow he worried over his answer.

“You’ve gone quiet.”

Nodding, he looked up at her through the dusty air of the jail. “There’s no good answer to that question.”

“All I want is the truth.”

“The truth.” He hoped his laugh didn’t sound as harsh as it was coming from his throat. “That’s something most folks would rather steer clear of.”

“I’m not like most people.”

“Right.” Jimmy’s tone was dubious and he knew he’d hit her with a barb. His aim was still good. “Nearly ten years ago, I shot my mouth off and took the notice of a man that writes them stories… too bad, that moment of stupidity has cost so many their lives.”

Her chin quivered, her hands stilted in their movements as she lowered the tome back into her basket. “If you had it to do all over again?”

Ignoring the slight sound of hope in her voice he gave her what she wanted. The truth. “Things like that can’t ever be undone. All the wishing in the world can’t make it any better than the way it is right now. So, I don’t go hopin’ for something that I can’t have. I just want the chance to live my life.” He wrapped his hands around the bars before him and gave a good angry tug. “That’s why I need to get a message to Marshal Cain. He’ll know about the warrant. He’ll know that I’m not a wanted man.”

She measured him, sure as if she’d scooped him out of the flour barrel at Bob Mercer’s General store and plopped him down on the scale. Ida searched through his eyes, looking for something more interesting than a long lethal Colt and a weary look in his eyes. She gave him a subtle nod and then she disappeared.

As Miss Ida Holden left the jail, Deputy Cal couldn’t help but let go of a long wolf-like whistle. “You done it now, Hickok. You done chased her away. Now who’re you gonna get to listen to your fool words?”

I've been stuck for days in a lonely town
When my luck ran south
Soon As You Can

Jimmy stared down at the telegram in his hand and looked up with a wry smile pulling at his lips.

Territorial Marshal Sam Cain gave him a grimace. “Should I be worried?”

Handing the paper over to the marshal, Jimmy leaned back against the wall and propped his feet up on the desk, knocking over a pile of papers onto the floor.

“Hey! You better pick those up!” Rattling the bars of the holding cage was Calvin Hastings. “Those are important papers.”

“If I want to pick them up, I will, but right now, I’m talking to Marshal Cain-”

“Keep quiet so I can read.”  Sam squinted at the paper holding it at arm’s length.

Jimmy’s laughter didn’t help Sam’s mood. “It just says that you’re bringin’ me home with you.”

“You’re not goin’ anywhere, Hickok, we’re gonna hang you!”

Sam’s pistol cleared leather and he leveled it at the deputy. “I have a headache and you ain’t helpin’.” His gaze swiveled back to his old friend. “What the hell are you smilin’ over, Hickok?”

“You may be gettin’ old, but you sure as heck ain’t gettin’ slow.”

That got a smile. “Good of you to notice. And you-” Sam threw a pointed look at the younger man, “should take note of it.”

“This is my jail!”

Sam put up his gun and stared at Jimmy, “Are you ready to get out of here?”

Jimmy’s boots hit the floor and he stood in one movement, a hand pressed to the lower part of his back. “More than happy to, that cot didn’t do much for me.”

“Gettin’ old yourself?”

The look was pointed and dangerous. “You’re lucky I love your wife, Sam… or I’d shoot you right now and call it even.”

Sam nodded. “Then for my sake, I won’t call you out for sayin’ you love my wife, and just count myself lucky that I won’t have to find out if you’ve gotten any slower.”

Jimmy paused for a moment as he buckled his gun belt. “That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard in this town.”

They left the jail, shutting the door on the long stream of cuss words descending from Cal Hastings’s lips.

******

Jimmy stretched his legs, nearly standing up in the saddle for just a minute before settling back into the worn leather seat.

He heard Sam’s chuckle and gave his old friend a withering look.

“I’m glad you don’t make these ‘situations’ a habit, Hickok. I’m gettin’ too old to rush around the countryside pullin’ your fat out of the fryer.”

“Right. Since I haven’t called on you for help in nearly ten years, this is cause for concern?”

Sam rode along, his face into the sunlight and his hands lightly on the reins. “I’m just glad that Emma was able to get word to me in time. Looks like the gallows were nearly ready.

Turning his head side to side, Jimmy stretched out his neck. “I was noticing that myself.”

Pushing his hat back on his head, Sam gave Jimmy a grin that was more of a smirk. “You didn’t have to lock the deputy up.”

“No,” Jimmy answered back, “I was thinking of breaking his nose, but then you’d have to arrest me for assault.”

“True, but I would have hit him if it was me.” Sam gently tapped his spurs into the side of his mount and leaned over the horse’s neck as the gelding sprang forward into a run.

Jimmy copied his old friend and was soon even with his ground eating strides. “What’s the hurry?”

“When you’ve got a woman like Emma at home, you want to get there yesterday.”

Jimmy nodded even though Sam couldn’t see him. There was no arguing with that logic.

*****

Leaning back in his chair, Jimmy pushed his plate a few inches away. Emma gave him an appraising look across the table. “You can’t be full, can you?”

He rubbed his hand over his belly, wincing as his full belly warred with the constraints of his belt.

Sam nodded over at him. “Go ahead, loosen it… she hasn’t even brought out the pie yet.”

Emma flicked her husband on his shoulder with her open hand. “How did you know I had a pie waiting… did you peek in the kitchen?”

Holding up his hands in mock surrender, Sam reached over and pulled on the shoulder strap of Emma’s apron and pulled her close enough to brush a kiss over her cheek. “Because, you’ve had two… almost three days to prepare for our guest, that and… when we walked in I spotted it cooling on the window sill just outside the kitchen.”

“So you cheated.”

Sam hooked his arm around her waist and lifted her right out of her chair and onto his lap. “Hickok, ain’t she pretty when she’s pouting?”

Emma tried to brush his hands away but she ended up hugging Sam right back and burying her face in his neck. Jimmy was helpless to do anything but look down at the nearly empty plate on the table top and try not to smile like Cody, wide-eyed and brainless. “Look, if you two would rather be alone, I’ve got my bedroll and-”

Sam’s face was red, but the smile was genuine. “Now, don’t get your knickers in a knot, Hickok… I think me and the missus can behave ourselves for a few days… are you sure you can’t stay any longer?”

Jimmy looked from one friend to the other and felt the tension ease from his shoulders it was almost like being at home.

******

Emma gave him another kiss on his cheek and disappeared back into the house to get ready for bed, leaving Jimmy and Sam on the porch.

Reaching into his pocket, Jimmy pulled out a couple of cigars from his pocket. Holding them up into the dim light of the porch he gave Sam a smile. “You want one?”

There was a pause as Sam considered it. “Naw,” he waved his hand, “she’d smell it all over me and I’ll end up sleeping out here. No thanks, Hickok.”

Sam looked up with a glare when he heard Jimmy’s laughter.

“Don’t say it, Hickok… it won’t be funny if your lip’s all swollen.”

Jimmy considered the cigar, drawing it under his nose to get a good sniff. With a long suffering sigh, he shoved both back into his pocket. “I guess if I want to spend my night inside… I’d better put ‘em away.”

Sam chuckled into his coffee. “Now you’ve got the way of things, Hickok. There’s hope for you yet.”

Cupping his mug between his hands, Jimmy looked out at the stars pinned against the heavens. “That’s what I’m hoping, Sam.”

“I’m glad I was able to get to you in time, Jimmy… looks like that town was in desperate need of a little entertainment.”

“You mean me, don’t you?”

Sam propped his boot up on the railing and tilted his chair back. “That’s what it looked like. They were just waiting for the builders to pound that final nail into the gallows and you were going up.”

“I never thought that making friends with a lady would come in handy at a time like that.”

“Well,” Sam took another sip of coffee, “you should thank your lucky stars. Seems Miss Ida’s brother-in-law operates the town’s telegraph.” He held up his hand before Jimmy could speak, “but apparently, he lacks the ingenuity to find out where I was. It was her idea to contact Emma and ask. As soon as Emma heard about the trouble you were in, she tracked me down and set a fire under my rear to get to you in time.”

“I envy you that, Sam.” Jimmy nodded as he turned away, listening to the crickets calling out in the night. “You have a woman that would do that for you… you know she would.”

Sam nodded. “Yes sir… I do.” He set his cup down and stretched. “What about you, Hickok? What do you have waiting for you?”

The mood shifted. It rolled through the air touching both of them as they sat in the dark shadows of the porch. “I don’t rightly know how to answer that, Sam.”

The older man shrugged. “Shouldn’t be that hard, Jimmy. “

“Right. Easy for you to say. You married the woman you love.”

“Sure, but-” Sam seemed to grasp the answer to his own question, dropping his foot down from the railing with a thump on the floorboards of the porch, “when are you gonna let her know… that’s what it is, isn’t it? You haven’t told her.”

Jimmy downed the rest of his coffee and set the cup on the railing. “It’s just not that easy. Sure, I could say the words, but that don’t make it easy for either of us. She’s got... she’s got a husband.”

“Oh.” Sam’s tone was surprised, confused. “Then, I’d say you’ve got a problem.” He stood, pacing a few steps in one direction... then the other before moving toward the door. “I’m gonna head in. You, ah… stay out here as long as you’d like.”

Jimmy hid his nervous smile behind his hand, his eyes averted to make it easier on his old friend. “Sure, thanks. ‘Night.”

“Night, Hickok.” He heard the sound of Sam’s retreating footsteps and figured himself alone.

He should have known better.

“Jimmy?”

His head hung down, a shy smile curving his lips. “Thought you went to sleep, Emma.”

“I figured I would come down here and talk to you.”

He nodded. “How much did you hear?”

 “Enough.”  Sam’s chair gave a protest as she moved it closer until the hem of her night gown appeared down by his feet and he felt the gentle pressure of her hand on his shoulder.  “So let’s see if we can’t get this straightened out.”

“It’s not that simple.”

She sat down in the chair and slid her hand over his cheek. “Love never is, Jimmy… but it’s worth it.”

******

The next morning, Jimmy packed his things, even with Emma’s frequent and vociferous protests.  Taking her aside, he reassured her that he’d come back… soon.  It was all she could do not to filch her husband’s handcuffs and tie him down to the railing.

Sam and Jimmy joked around as they saddled up his horse. They bantered back and forth all the while Emma darted in and out of the house bringing out baked goods and clean clothes.

Emma hung back until the last possible moment before she rushed forward, enveloping Jimmy in her arms. “You … take care… or you’ll be sorry-” she blinked through her tears and didn’t seem bothered by the irony of her words.

She started to step back but thought better of it, taking Jimmy’s face between her hands and pulling him down so she could whisper into his ear.  The words were earnest and the look in her eyes was pointed as she pulled away. Emma looked up at him seeking reassurance that she had gotten her point across.

The subtle shake of his head earned him a punch to his upper arm.

Jimmy looked up at Sam’s snort of laughter and glared at the older man. Grabbing onto the horn of his saddle, Jimmy turned to mount.

“You think on it, you hear me, Jimmy Hickok… you think on it.”

He swung up into the saddle and pulled his hat down in a salute. “That I can promise.”

Sam’s arm lifted over her shoulders and pulled her closer.  She rested her cheek on Sam’s shoulder and reached her hand up to wave farewell.

That image went with Jimmy as he rode away.

'Cause when a man wants to be with a woman
There ain't no way of gettin' there too fast
Hope for Me Yet

Jimmy didn’t really fault the young soldier that challenged his entrance to the fort. Normally, he’d sit back and wait while he cleared his passage with the commanding officer, but today he was tired and dirty and had the temperament of a hibernating bear up two months too soon. So, when he felt he’d waited long enough, Hickok started in yelling.

“Custer! Get your ass down here and open up this gate!”

The gate was still closed a few minutes later.

“Cuuuuuster! I’m waiting!”

He paced back and forth, keeping an eye on the gate. Nothing.

“That’s it, Custer… you’ve about worn out my patience. You’ve got about five minutes and then-”

The wooden door cut into the palisade swung open and General George Custer poked his head out into the night. “Damn you, Hickok! Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Jimmy sauntered over to the door, pulling his mount behind him. “Of course I do, you ol’ cuss, that’s why I’m yellin’! Would you want to spend the whole night standing out here in the cold?”

“I wouldn’t,” the General conceded, “then again, I’d understand the fact that there are decent folks within these walls that are trying to get some sleep!”

“Sleep?” Jimmy sighed, “Never figured you for a fancy lady, Geoge, I-”

“Bill, shut up and come inside. Libby got up just to make up a room for you, the least you could do is allow her to get back in bed sometime in the near future.”

Hickok chuckled and followed his old friend past the curious stares of the guards at the gate. “New men?”

Custer sighed, “Newly minted and just as shiny.”

“Doesn’t sound like you get much sleep with babies at the gate.”

The General turned to him and that’s when Hickok saw the lines on his friend’s face. “It’s one day to the next, Hickok. We get up and the fort is still there? That’s what I’m hoping for.” He pointed at a neat and tidy white clapboard house along the North wall. The lamps on either side of the door glowed brightly and a moment later, the door yawned open and a petite figure was silhouetted against the bright lights within. “That, and knowing that Libby is safe and happy is a balm to my heart.”

Clapping a hand on the General’s shoulder, Jimmy gave him a broad smile. “Lead the way, friend… “

*****

The next morning saw the great Wild Bill Hickok ordered around by a woman that for all intents and purposes was half his size. “Now sit.”

He sat down in one of the tapestry covered chairs at their table and meekly placed the linen napkin across his lap. “Is this what you have to go through to get a meal around here?”

From the sideboard, Libby gave him a haughty look.

“Careful, Hickok, I don’t believe she finds that statement humorous.”

Raising his brows together he only succeeded in earning another caustic look from his hostess.  He couldn’t let it continue. He didn’t want to antagonize her during his entire stay… he doted on her too much for that. “Dear woman, do not let me goad your anger too much.” He gave her his most winning smile. “I only meant to prick your temper a bit.

“Prick my temper? Why, my dear James, you have been most successful at your aims and now you must suffer the punishment.”

Custer poured himself a second cup of coffee and groaned. “The way you two carry on, it’s like you’ve both become characters in one of Libby’s novels,” the man sighed and gave his wife a smile, “do have a care with mine ears, woman… don’t torture me too much, or it will end up being visited on my men.”

“Ouch.” Hickok ignored the look from both of them that told him to be quiet.

Minutes later, when they’d all been served their morning meals, Libby leaned closer to Jimmy and inquired. “James, are you planning to stay for more than a day or two?”

He gave her a look that said he knew she had something up her lace-edged sleeve and she returned the look with one of practiced innocence.

General Custer lowered his paper just enough so that he could look at his wife. “What game are you playing this time, Libby?”

“Hush, George.”

“You shouldn’t let her manipulate you, Bill.”

Her mouth popped open in an indignant circle before it melted into a pout.  “I’m positively scandalized; thanks to both of you.”

“Now, darling… you know you are practically famous for your escapades.” Custer gave her a hearty wink and reached for the pot of coffee.

She recovered a moment later and flicked open her fan and fluttered it beneath her chin. “Don’t you listen to him, James…” she gave extra emphasis to his given name, “He’s just jealous that you are still a free man, while he is tied down to a silly woman like me.”

General Custer frowned down at his wife. “How you wound me, pet.” He looked over at his friend. “Don’t you agree with me, Bill… women have such an innate talent for cutting a man to the quick.” He sat down beside his wife and kissed her cheek. “With a well placed word they can slay our vanity and then with a shy smile they can reduce a man to a veritable slave of love.”

“One couldn’t ask for a more beautiful mistress than your Elizabeth.”

Raising a single brow, Custer looked back at Jimmy with mock concern. “Will I have you challenging for my wife’s affections?”

“Well, if you continue insulting my friends, George, I just may have to leave you on my own.”

“Your friend? Bill was my friend for years before-”

“He worked for you, dear. He was your subordinate first. He has always been my friend.”

Custer gave Jimmy a sour look. “See what you started?”

*****

The men at the post were more than happy to spare a moment to speak with him. Jimmy got the idea somewhere during the middle of the day that most of them considered it an honor to give him an idea of what life was like in the Fort.

Jimmy had to hand it to George, the men had genuine admiration for their commanding officer and Jimmy agreed. He’d found George to be head strong and stubborn at times, but he gave everything he had to his job and the men that served under him.

Come time for the mid-day meal, Jimmy started back for the Custer house and was stopped just a hundred feet from the door by a young boy with dirt on his nose and a liberal dusting of sugar on his shirt. “You, Hickok?”

He crouched down beside the boy and gave him a smile. “Yes sir, that would be me… and you?”

“Hardy Ware. My mama’s goin’ to the party tonight.”

“Party? Well that sounds like fun.”

“Wha?” Hardy narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to the side like a Spaniel. “Don’t you know?”

“Know?  Sorry son, I’m not quite sure what you’re sayin’…”

“The party is for you, Mr. Hickok.”

Jimmy got to his feet and gave the boy a reassuring pat. “Sure… sure… I heard about it… just didn’t know it was such a big thing and-”

Hardy wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and managed to smear the dirt over his cheek. “Oh it’s big all right.” The little boy was missing his front left tooth when he tilted his head up to give him a look. “All the ladies in the post are comin’ over to have a look at you.”

“Have a look at me? Son, that doesn’t sound like it’ll be much fun.”

“Aw, heck.” The boy shrugged his shoulders. “From what my Mama said everyone’s lookin’ forward to see if the real man measure’s up to con… con… conjugation.”

“Con-  conjugation?” Jimmy put his hands on his knees and leaned forward. “Did you mean conjecture, son?”

“Sure,” he agreed a little too quickly, “whatever… “

Nodding, Jimmy folded his arms and asked him. “So… what do you think? Does the real man live up to the stories?”

Hardy cupped his chin in his hand and gave Jimmy a look from top to bottom that was most likely a study of his father or mother’s gesture. “Maybe…”

“Maybe?”

Shrugging, the boy dropped his hands to his sides. “At least if you’re standing here I don’t got to read about you.”

“Don’t ‘have’ to read, son.”

The boy heaved a mighty sigh. “If it ain’t one it’s another.”

“Well,” Jimmy gave the boy a smile, “if it’s true that we’re having a party tonight, I’d best get back and dress for the evening.”

He walked away toward the house and tried not to chuckle when the young boy called out. “Yer gonna change your clothes when you don’t gotta? Sheesh!”

*****

Just a few hours later the living and sitting room of George and Libby Custer’s home was fair to bursting with flounces, boning and crinolines. Hickok had just spent the last hour or so avoiding the tendency to be backed into the corner by any one woman.  Living under the tutelage of first Emma and then Rachel had taught him that to avoid being cornered by just one person and having to worry about hurting their feelings, it was easier to surround himself with a number of women than worry that he’d pay too much attention to a single one and cause trouble for everyone around them.

Then again, as he was pushed hither to and yon by a bevy of young women he realized that the tutelage of another person was probably more effective in preserving his health. Teaspoon. Wasn’t it Teaspoon that had encouraged them to ‘…run like hell’? Well, now Jimmy understood what he meant.

If he remembered correctly, the woman before him was the wife of a Captain.“Do tell me, Mr. Hickok,” she tittered behind her fan as she addressed him, “Do you find it tiring?”

“Tiring, Ma’am?”

“All of these women, fawning all over you?”

“Oh, I doubt it’s really ‘fawning’ ma’am.” He lifted his chin and gave them all a smile. “It does a man’s heart good to be surrounded by such lovely and lively women.”

“Oh dear, Mr. Hickok, I do so adore your suit coat. Where did you purchase it?”

“I don’t rightly recall, Miss… it has been awhile, and-”He shifted and a curious look crossed his features as he felt something brush up against him.

“And your sash,” added another woman, her blonde curls brushing her shoulders as she angled in to get a better look, “it’s just divine.”

“Stylish,” added another.

A hand found its way through the crowd to fan across his chest and another, from an unseen source found its way behind him to brush along the backside of his trousers. “Whoa!”

The ladies all sat back and laughed amongst themselves.

Jimmy, too his credit, took the untoward attention and laughed it off. “So,” he wondered, “who would like to hear a story about the General?”

That kept them busy for the better part of an hour and then the ladies were asking for one story after another. They wanted to know what it was like to ride for the Express.

“Did you see any savages?”

“You mean Indians?”

“Oh yes, did you see them?”

“See them? Yes… and worked with a few. One of my best friends is Kiowa.”

That elicited a few gasps. “A red man?”
Jimmy gave her a look that censured her gently. “Not quite, he was a brave and knowledgeable man and I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with him. He’s a published journalist.”

There was a murmur of feminine approval that rippled through the gathering.

“I met a number of men that I count as my closest friends in the world and there are so many people that I met during the express that I will remember for-”

“What about women?” The question came from a woman with a haughty expression and dark eyes. “I’m sure you met many ‘memorable’ women when you were… riding the trail.”

Jimmy’s smile was warm and his eyes softened. “Yes… yes, I did.” He went on to tell them about Emma… and Rachel. “They were a civilizing influence on me. If it wasn’t for them, well, I wouldn’t be fit company for you ladies.”

That elicited a round of appreciative comments and vows to include those ‘amazing’ women in their prayers.

“Mr. Hickok, I-”

“I wasn’t finished.” The dark-eyed beauty moved closer. “While those ladies sound like wonderful ‘sisters’… I wonder if there is a woman that holds your heart, now?”

“Well, really, my heart does have a mistress. One that I am sad to say is unable to return my affections.”

There was much made of this announcement as the women excitedly spoke to each other behind their fans.

“James….” Libby stepped in close, adroitly moving between the variety of colored skirts blocking her way, “do not cause a riot…”

He feigned innocence, giving her a wink.  “My dear, Libby… what do you mean?”

She waggled a finger at him. “Oh… I know you. You’re more likely to cause a sensation with some misbegotten thought, then simply tell the truth.”

“I am wounded, dear lady.” He placed his hand over his heart and gave her a courtly bow. “I am wounded to the quick.”

“Who, is it Wild Bill?” A young woman with lively green eyes tugged on his sleeve.

“Yes… Yes…” insisted a woman with titian hair at his other elbow, “… what kind of woman can keep your interest… do tell.”

He crooked his finger at them… inviting them closer to him, drawing them in. The only one to seem immune to his enticement was Mrs. Custer. She stood apart from the group, her arms folded over her bosom.

The women advanced, drawn with the promise of a delicious secret and apparently, life at the fort did not provide enough gossip to keep them satisfied. The woman who had insisted on the question was perched on his shoulder, her hands folded over each other to cushion her cheek as she looked up into his face expectantly.

“She is a paragon of virtue and beauty. Accomplished in many arenas of feminine knowledge and can tame a wild beast with a simple look.” He moved through the women, leaving behind numerous pouts and peeved sighs as he cross the room only to drop to one knee before their hostess. “Elizabeth Custer, I am your humble servant and one day, should that man that you call husband see fit to anger you beyond your ability to forgive, please consider me as a willing replacement.”

“James Butler Hickok,” her voice drew his attention to her face, “do get up off the floor before your dirty your trousers. I’ll not wash them for you if you do.”

He turned to the assembly of ladies and pressed the back of his hand to his forehead. “She has refused me again… alas, I am inconsolable… I am undone.”

Standing, he bowed his head as if he was an actor on a stage and turned to the door. “Excuse me,” he called over his shoulder, “as I adjourn outside to lick my wounds in private.”

He heard their cries before the door closed and he braced his hands on the railing outside of the Custer home, tensing only when he heard the door open and close again.

“Do relax, James. It’s only me.”

Jimmy turned and leaned against the rail, giving his hostess a pointed look with an arched brow completing the picture.  “Well, I hope you’re satisfied with your ‘party,’ Libby.”

“Satisfied?” She clapped her hands together and nearly danced a jig as she moved closer. “It was marvelous, until,” her expression changed quickly and she paced closer to poke an accusatory finger into his chest, “until you told them you were in love with me.”

His expression feigned shock.  “I thought you knew!” He gave her an outrageous wink. “I know George does, he threatens me every time I visit.”
“James, really-”

“I take him seriously, Libby. A woman such as yourself is bound to attract numerous men like moths to a flame and I’m sure I’m only just a single-”

“James!” She gave him a cross look. “You are trying my patience!”

“Good.” He gave her a silly grin, “You’re lovely when you’re angry.”

She gave him a shrewd look in return. “You are hiding something from me.”

“No.”

“Yes,” she insisted. “You’re not normally so obtuse, James. So this is truly serious and therefore it must be because of a woman.”

He looked away for a moment, pushing his fingers through his hair, messing the long wavy lengths with the anxious action. “What did I do to deserve you, Elizabeth?”

“Elizabeth?” She lowered her chin to look up at him through the shadows on the porch. “If you’ve taken to calling me by my given name this is serious.”

She moved beside him and leaned on the railing so that she could hear his words even if he lowered his voice and folded her hands in the flounce of her skirt. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I left before I could… be a burden.”

“Burden? How so?”

He let out a long sigh. “I leave when it gets… normal.”

She didn’t interrupt him even though she wanted to. When he was like this… it was better to let him figure it out on his own.

“I get used to showing up at the table for meals and taking walks with her after supper. It gets only too easy to spend time with her. I don’t even mind getting behind the counter at the Saloon, just to spend a few more hours with her. Then,” his shoulders sagged a little, “there are the moments when we come back from our walks and we stop just outside the door and she looks up at me… and I remember what it was like to kiss her and that all I want to do for the rest of time.”

She bit her tongue, her fingers biting into the crisp folds of her moiré skirt in a desperate attempt to keep quiet.

“Then, I remember that she’s a married woman and I’m her closest friend and that’s a line I can’t cross, no matter how much I want to.”

That’s when the dam broke. “Married?” She felt her hand lash out and bounce off of his upper arm. “James Butler Hickok, what are you doing falling for a married woman-” Her voice trailed off as she realized the irony of her words.

“So, that’s the bare bones of it, Libby. Have you a way of saving my soul without becoming a monk?”

“You… a monk?” She dissolved into a fit of giggles and Jimmy gave her a sour look that barely penetrated her thoughts. “Do tell me another joke… we have so little to laugh at out here in the wilderness.”

“I’m serious about this and you’re laughing. You are a cruel… cruel woman.”

“Oh, there there, James,” she gave his arm a few gentle pats to reassure him.

“That’s not helping.” He couldn’t help but follow up with a nervous laugh of his own. “Really, Libby… it’s nothing to worry yourself over, I’ll find my way.”

“Find your way? That’s not what you want… not what we’d want for you, James. We love you.” He took her hand and lifted it up to his lips, brushing a chaste kiss over her knuckles.  “Now,” she gave him a smile and a determined gaze, “tell me more and we’ll see what we can do to puzzle this out and make you happy again.”

There ain't much of nothin' in me left to be saved but I bet
If you could love somebody like me there might be hope for me yet
Trying to Stop Your Leaving

Someone was pounding on her door. Someone who apparently didn’t want their job any longer. “What is it?”

“It’s Carrie, Mrs. Kingston… she’s asking for whiskey.”

Turning over onto her back she stared up at the ceiling and tried to ignore the peeling paint hanging down like feathers.  Taking in a deep breath she felt the confines of her corset bite into her ribs even through the chemise she wore.

“I sure as hell hope that no one is serving the girl.”

There was a pause and then a shuffling sound. “No, Miss… but Carrie knows where you keep the key and she’s goin’ after it herself.”

She groaned and rolled to the side of the bed sliding into some slippers with practiced ease and while she made her way to the door her hands were already twisting and turning the buttons of her gown. “I don’t know why you girls insist on falling in love,” she swung her door open, catching the two girls hovering outside by surprise, “it’s really too much trouble and entirely bad for business.”

They stepped apart and then closed in behind her as she moved down the hall toward the stairs.

Amber gave her a wide berth but followed her down with another girl behind her. “The boy said he was going to marry her, but-”

“But he left her behind.” She shook her head as she made the turn toward the bottom floor, her hand lightly skimming over the railing. “Really, you can’t believe everything a man says, especially after-”

“Half a bottle of whiskey.” Amber provided the information as thought it was meant to make her feel better.

Pausing at the bottom of the stairs she said a quick prayer for patience before continuing on.

*****

The sight was enough to make her want to up and quit; sell the business and move away. Standing up behind the bar was her part time bartender and he was cowering in the corner as Carrie brandished a derringer as she moved around the bar.

The first thing she had to do was regain control of the situation. What she wouldn’t give for her rifle at the moment. Women with their hearts broken didn’t usually listen to anything smaller than a rifle. “I’d like to know why you think you can come into my Saloon and wave that thing around, Missy.”

There was stutter to Carrie’s step and she put her free hand out to steady herself as she stumbled into a brass spittoon. “I’m gettin’ myself a drink.”

“Uh uh,” she kept her voice level in pitch put firm in tone, “not today… not if you want to keep your job.”

Whirling around, Carrie slapped the derringer down onto the bar top. “Maybe I don’t care about my job anymore.” Giving her boss a smug look she plopped herself down on a stool and lifted the bottle to her lips.

“Put it down.”

It wasn’t the volume that had Carrie’s motions stilling, her hand quivering from exertion as a drop of golden liquid pooled at the lip of the bottle. It was the pain they heard echoing in the room, the gnawing emptiness carried in those three little words. With a defeated sigh, she set the bottle down on the bar and collapsed against the hard wood counter.

With a nod of reassurance, Stuart emerged from the corner to grab the bottle and put it back on the shelf. He quickly wiped down the top of the bar and then made himself scarce. By that time Carrie’s heart-rending sobs had calmed enough that a voice could be heard over the din.

“Drowning in the drink isn’t the answer.”

“Well, it’s the best damn one I got!” There was an opening in the curtain of hair that covered her face and if one looked carefully they could see sad green eyes peering back.  “I got nothin’ to live for now that Ritter done up and left!”

“Lower your voice ‘fore the whole town knows what’s goin’ on.” The edge of her tone softened as she set her hand on the girl’s arm. “They think we’re running a brothel to begin with and we don’t need to entertain them.”  Stepping up, she perched her bottom on the bar stool next to Carrie and used her free hand to sweep the errant curtain of tangled curls to the side. “Besides, there’s nothing that a quiet conversation and some of my best tea can’t cure.”

*****

Ten minutes later, Mrs. Biddle set down a tray between the two women and Carrie surrendered the tear soaked wash cloth to the older woman with a guilty grimace. “I didn’t mean to cause such a fuss, really.”

“Sugar?”

She nodded, distractedly and watched as a spoonful of the precious sweetener was added to her cup. Carrie took it in her hand and took a long drink from her cup. As she set it down she looked up to see Mrs. Kingston  looking deep into her cup, her hands cupped around the precious china as if she was drawing heat from it as she waited. Carrie was suddenly self-conscious, picking up her napkin from the tray and swiping at her lips before she made a fool of herself.

“I’m not going to tell you not to cry, sweetie, I’m old and set in my ways, but I’m not stupid. I know what it’s like to feel as though someone’s cut your heart out with a spoon and fed it to you for supper. I’m a woman who has loved and lost, Carrie, but that’s why I know what I’m saying.” She brought the tea cup up to her lips and took a slow sip of tea before setting it back down onto its saucer. “If you use drink to dull the pain, you’ll never find your way out of the bottle.”

“I just want to forget, a bottle or two-”

“Becomes three or four.” She saw the look of denial on the younger woman’s face. “The pain is so fresh, so deep… that you think no one could ever have felt the very same thing before you lost him… or for ever after.” She touched the younger woman’s hand and met her troubled gaze. “Then it’s just one more drink… one more bottle… and one morning you wake up with the world upside down and you just want to die, ‘cause it’s easier than trying to take that next breath all by yourself.”

“How… it’s not-”

“It’s not hard to see it, unless it feels like you’re lookin’ in a mirror.” She watched as Carrie downed the rest of her tea like a shot of whiskey and refilled the cup with tea when she put it down.  “Don’t make the mistake of dulling the pain with a drink, Carrie.  Go, punch your pillows, toss them around your room, take the carriage and ride out until you can’t see the town and jump up and down and scream until you can barely catch your breath or feel your toes and then if you need to, you do it again and again until you can’t feel anything but the physical pain and then you know… you’re gonna be alright.”

Carrie’s expression was dubious and still held a glimmer of something less debilitating. Something akin to hope.  “Who’s gonna care if I don’t crawl back out of that bottle? Ritter’s gone…”

“We’re here, Carrie, we’ve always been here.”

“Well, goodness!” The doorway was filled up with a woman’s silhouette, complete with bonnet. “Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?”

Carrie looked up at Mrs. Kingston with a curious stare as her austere boss gave a nervous laugh and slipped down from the barstool she was sitting on. 

She was nearly half way across the room before she managed to speak. “Emma?” Her hand fluttered over her heart. “Is it really you?”

Emma Cain flung her arms open and gave her younger friend a brilliant smile. “Sure as sugar, honey… come here.”

The women laughed and nearly turned in circles as their voices fired off a barrage of questions that neither of them had any hope of understanding or answering. It took a moment, but Mrs. Kingston finally came to her senses and turned to face Carrie, her hand flattened over her heart. “Carrie, this is my old friend Emma Cain, well, she’s more than a friend,” laying her cheek on Emma’s shoulder she gave her friend a winning smile, “she’s more like a… a mother to me.” Turning to Emma, she made the introduction, “This is Carrie, one of the girls that works for me and-”

Carrie stood and took the tray in her hands. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Cain,” turning to her boss she continued, “I’ll take this into the kitchen and have another drink,” she paused at the curious look that shivered across her employer’s face, “more tea… if that’s all right… and then I might head out to take a ride… into the country.”

Mrs. Kingston caught her meaning and gave her a single nod of permission. “When you come back, we’ll talk. Yes?”

“Yes… yes, thank you.”

*****

Emma watched the young girl walk from the room; her honey blonde curls caught the light as she passed into the kitchen through a side door.

She reached up to untie her bonnet strings and set the smart little confection to the side on a table. “I’m not interrupting, am I, Belle?”

“You know better than to ask that, Emma.”

Her laughter was light and warm, settling over them both like a winter’s blanket. It was wonderful to spend time together, and that had never changed. Emma took her hand and they walked toward the kitchen. “Let’s make some tea.”

“Perfect.”

*****

Mrs. Biddle enjoyed this turn of events. She put her feet right up on the foot stool and promptly fell asleep in the warm patch of sun near the window as her employer made her friend tea.

Emma watched the quick and efficient way that her hostess moved about the kitchen.  “It’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to visit you.”

“I don’t blame you… Sam has a lot of responsibility and it must take a lot of your time to do chores for the both of you.  I wish I’d know you were coming, I’d have found someone to work for me for a few days and the two of us-”

“Oh, this wasn’t really planned, but when I get it in my head to do something, Sam-”

“Sam just has to step out of the way or get the wind knocked out of him.”  She brought the tray over to the table and set it down in the middle. “You are a woman to reckon with.”

Emma took the teacup and set it down on the table. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all week.” She waited until Belle sat down in the adjacent chair before she took her first sip. “You and I have a lot of things to talk about.”

“Oh?” She smiled over the lip of her cup. “You have news? Is it one of the boys? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone; I’ve been too busy to travel. The Saloon is busy, but we can’t seem to keep anyone for long. There’s always something better… some new venture that grabs their attention and out the door they go.”

“And Carrie?” Emma’s shrewd gaze pinned her friend with a look. “Is she on her way out?”

Belle shook her head and set her cup down on the table. “The man she fell in love with walked out. He’d been given the chance to head West, as a wagon man for a well to do family and he had to take the job.”

“Or so he told her.” Emma picked up a cookie and shrugged. “It’s probably better that he go now, instead of breaking her heart-”

“Later, yes I know, but to Carrie… her heart was broken. She saw love walking away and she wanted to follow.” The tension in Belle’s shoulders was easy to read.

Emma took a bite of her cookie and nodded. “Did he know?”

“I have my own thoughts on the matter, but if anyone should know a thing or two about leaving… it would be me.”

The room was quiet for a moment and the two could hear Mrs. Biddle’s soft snoring coming from her nest by the window. Belle dropped a single spoonful of sugar into her tea and watched it swirl around the stem of her spoon after a few stirs.

“Are you angry about-?”

“I stopped bein’ angry about it a long time ago. I stopped wondering and hoping that he’d come walkin’ through my front door when I… when I-”

“You’re still waiting.”

Belle froze, her fingers lightly brushing the lip of her cup, trembling in the soft light of the kitchen. “And… and that’s wrong with that?”

*****

The moment the words left her lips, Belle knew there wasn’t any hope in hell of taking them back. She’d opened the door and now she’d just have to walk through.  Leaning her elbow on the table she cradled her forehead in her hand. “I don’t want a lecture, Emma.” Brightening, she sat up and gave Emma a winning smile. “Can’t we talk about Jacob? Isn’t that a better topic to spend our time on?”

Emma waggled a finger at her friend. “Try as you might, talking about my son isn’t going to get you out of this discussion. Jacob sends his love, by the way, and thanks you for that book you sent him for his birthday. I just had a letter from him… postmarked from New York.”

“I take it he’s getting along with Cody?”

“Oh, they’re having a grand time,” she narrowed her eyes, “sneaky… very sneaky.” Reaching for the pot she poured another cup for both of them and looked over at her friend. “Wily little thing that you are, you turned that around on me.” She reached across and settled her hand on Belle’s arm. “Don’t you think you’ve waited long enough? When do you get a chance to move on?”

“That’s not what this is about, Emma. I made promises-”

 “What do you tell yourself? What do you hear in your head when you see a shadow in the doorway and you think it’s him?”

“I think I’ll fall over in gratitude.” She couldn’t help the hard edge in her voice, couldn’t hide the weariness of her face… not from Emma. “I’d have my answers… I’d have my life back.”

“What’s wrong with your life, now?” Emma was trying to put on a happy face, trying to put her at ease. Too bad it was having the opposite effect.

“Nothing… everyone knows me as the ‘merry widow’ it’s been so long since the end of the war that most people think its official, that we had a funeral, but if you go to the cemetery, you can spend days searching and you’ll never find a headstone marked Kingston. Nothing.”

“Is that what you’re worried about?  What people think?”

“It’s hard enough in my line of work to keep the townsfolk happy… not have them chase me out of town for what I choose to do. I worry over my sanity, Emma.” She cleared her throat with a long sip from her cup. “I get up in the middle of the night and I look over at the empty pillow beside me and I want to see-”

“See him?”

“See him, yes…” Belle looked away quickly and then found her way back to Emma’s concerned gaze.  “Then at least I’d know.”

“And then…”

“Then I’d have my husband back. Then I’d have someone to share my life with… someone to count on.”

“Count on.” Emma stood up from her chair and walked over to the food safe perched up on the counter. She opened the screen door and took out another plate of cookies. “Seems to me there’s a lot to be said for the people you already have in your life. Don’t forget that.”

“Emma-” she looked away, her fingers fiddling with the edge of the napkin where it curled over the table edge, “I know you mean well, I just don’t…” Belle pressed her hands against her face, trying to block out Emma’s knowing look, “… it’s not just what I want, I learned that years ago. I’ve got my girls to worry about and my business, that keeps me busy.” She tried to distract her friend with a laugh. “I don’t have time for… for a man in my life.” She poured another cup of tea for both of them and motioned for Emma to sit. “That wouldn’t be fair to him…”

“What about you?” Emma moved back to the table and set her hand on Belle’s shoulder. “You worry about your girls, you worry about the town… when do you get to be happy? When do you get to have a life?”

Belle tugged on a long wavy strand of her hair and Emma remembered a time long ago when it had been too short to even reach her ears. “I have a life, Emma… it’s a good one.” Belle covered Emma’s hand with her own, but she couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “But, when I know… when I know where he is… what happened. That’s going to be day that I… that I-”

“It’s been five years, Belle… if you’re waiting for him to appear out of the blue, I-”

“Emma,” Belle stood from the chair, enveloping her friend in her arms, a desperate hug, “Let’s talk about something… happy. Let’s talk about friends.”

Emma set her back, far enough to look into her tearful brown eyes. “That’s something I can agree with whole heartedly.” Wrapping her arm around Belle’s waist she turned toward the door. “Let’s go for a walk…”

*****

The next morning, Emma set out with the dawn’s rays lighting the way toward home. She paused to give Mrs. Biddle a wave when she peaked out of a downstairs window. It was a good day to travel; hardly any clouds, little heat. She would be home before dark and in Sam’s arms.

There was a bit of movement in one of the alleys, nothing that would have normally caught her interest, but this… this was someone entirely too familiar to ignore.

She gently pulled back on the reins, slowing her team until they came to a stop beside him.

He spoke first, touching the brim of his hat as he gave her a greeting. “Emma.”

Nodding, she looked at his clothes; worn… weary, just like the man that wore them. “Get in.”

It took a minute for him to get up into the wagon. He favored his left side, using his arms to handle more of the weight. When he finally made it up onto the seat she flicked the reins and started the team moving.

“Where are we going?” His voice was genuinely surprised, a tad bit cautious in tone.

“To talk.”

You don't love me anymore
And I know as soon as you walk out that door
Train's a comin', tears are runnin'
Knowin' I couldn't stop your leavin'
The Heaven I'm Headed For

“Well, Son, ain’t you a sight for sore eyes!” Jimmy turned and found himself surrounded in old musty cotton as Teaspoon Hunter gave him a big bear hug.

Jimmy gave him a hug back, trying not to suffocate in the dust. “Then don’t kill me… let me breathe, Old Man.”

Teaspoon suddenly had him at arm’s length. “Old Man?”  He let go of Jimmy’s arms and started walking to the Mission. “Hmpf… put up your horse and get inside before it rains.”

Jimmy watched him walk away for a moment before he turned back to his mount, methodically grooming the mare as she patiently munched on some fresh hay in the corner of the old lean to.

There was a humidity to the air that clung to his skin, plastering the long lengths of hair at his temples to his skin. He gave thought to the man that greeted him, the thinning line of his face, cheeks that had lost their rosy plum, remembering the slight limp he’d seen as Teaspoon had walked away.

Tossing an over full scoop of feed within reach, Jimmy headed into the mission in search of some answers from his old friend.

*****

There were piles of pews in the entrance, as if someone had tried to clear the floor for an impromptu barn dance and the interior was hazzardly lit by candles at the front of the room.  Pulling the hat from his head, Jimmy stepped around the odd piles of obstacles in the room and found his old mentor seated up on the dais beneath the statue of the Holy Mother.

Teaspoon held out a hand, indicating the pile of cushions beside him on the stairs. “Well, grab a place to sit before everyone gets here.”

There was no point in arguing with the man or pointing out the oddity of his statement. ‘Besides,’ Jimmy thought, ‘with Teaspoon, you never know when he’s being serious or when he’s full of it.’

It took a moment to lower himself down onto the floor. He’d been hours in the saddle and-

“We’re not getting’ any younger, are we son?”

Jimmy gave him a smile and tossed his hat onto a bench a few feet away. “You can say that again.”

Picking up a cup from the altar, Teaspoon filled it from a dark glass bottle and handed it to Jimmy. Looking into the depths of the cup Jimmy couldn’t seem figure out exactly what it was in the cup.  Lifting it up to his nose, he took in a long sniff trying to decipher the contents.

Teaspoon looked over the edge of his own cup at Hickok, his brow furrowing with annoyance. “Just drink it, Jimmy… it’s not like I ever poisoned you.”

“On purpose,” Jimmy reminded him.

Groaning at the memory Teaspoon leaned back on the cushions and looked over as Jimmy took an experimental sip. “I can tell that you’re troubled, son,” he noticed the slight cringe and continued on, “why don’t you get it off your shoulders… I’ve got the time.”

Jimmy drank the rest of the brew and took a few moments to swallow it and make sure it wasn’t going to burn a hole through his middle. He lifted up his cup and Teaspoon raised his brow at the gesture. “Fill it and we’ll talk.”

*****

“Did I ever tell you about the bear who nearly drowned in two feet of pond water?”

This was a trick question. Jimmy was sure of it, but like any good pawn, he fell for the ruse. “No, but I get the feeling you’re gonna tell me.”

“Well,” Teaspoon surmised, “I guess I will… not so much because of your grumbling bear-like attitude, but because I think your trouble soul needs a balm just like this.”

Teaspoon settled himself back against the cushions and slapped his hands down on his knees as he gathered his thoughts through the haze of their drinking. “It was a clear day… beautiful weather, but that didn’t matter to our bear.” He gave Jimmy a look that silenced his objections. “He was in a foul mood, ‘cause somewhere along the way someone had gone and moved his honeycomb out of his reach and that didn’t set well with him.

So here he is amblin’ about with his mind on that lil’ bit o’ sweetness and not on the way before him and suddenly SPLASH!” Teaspoon’s hand lifted along with his eyebrows as he mimicked the path of the water. “Down he goes, into the muck… and he’s splashing and flailing, which only seems to put mud in his eyes and his fur. Instead of swimin’ for the edge, he got it in his mind that he was drownin’.

And do you know why that bear didn’t perish in a horribly embarrassing way?”

“No.” Even as he said the word, he knew he should have kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t because he thought Teaspoon would have given up. That wouldn’t happen, but at least Teaspoon wouldn’t know that he had actually been caught up in the story.
“Well, I’ll tell you, ‘cause a good story has to have an ending worthy of the tellin’.

“There was a wise ol’ bear walkin’ through the woods and he came upon the youngster, still flailin’ around in the mud and water… and loathe to see the possibility that part of his lineage would die here in a few feet of water… he did the only thing he could.”

Teaspoon paused, cupping a hand over his mouth as he yawned. The older man lay back against the pillow and crossed his arms over his chest. A moment later he was asleep.

Jimmy looked over at his mentor and gave him a questioning look. “You’re fakin’ right?”

He chest rose and fell with one breath and then two.

Drawing his pocket watch from his vest pocket, Jimmy checked the time. When he dropped the watch back into his pocket he heaved a sigh and stared at the retired Stationmaster. “He was the one that wanted to tell the story.” Stretching out his legs he groaned. The older he got it was harder to sit still for long periods of time. “Teaspoon?”

No answer.

“Teaspoon!”

Snort… Snuffle… “Wha?” Teaspoon shook his head disoriented. “You need a blanket, Hickok?”

“No.”

The older man gave him a hard look. “Then?”

Jimmy stared back. “The story?”

“Story?”

“The bear,” Jimmy growled.

“Oh the grumpy bear story? Well it does me good to think that you were actually listening, son. Now where was I?  Young bear… falls in water… old wonderful wise bear comes along and … oh , yes. Now, I recall.” He gave Jimmy a triumphant grin. “The big strong smart older bear, well he reached down and picked up a rock.”

“A what?”

“A rock… and he-”

“How?”

“How what?” Teaspoon’s glare was genuine.

“Bear paws are flat, how did he pick up the rock with a paw?”

“Hickok-”

“I can see him picking up the rock in his teeth, but why would he pick it up in the first place?”

“Son, Jimmy!” Teaspoon raised his voice to get Jimmy’s attention.

He did. “What?”

“You’re gettin’ off the subject. The bear picked up the rock and hurled it over his head and *boink* beaned it off the grumpy bear’s noggin.”

“He killed him?”

Jimmy sounded outraged and Teaspoon had to laugh, the rotgut swirling in his stomach didn’t allow for any other reaction. “Nope, but he sure did get the boy… I mean bear’s attention.

“It took the younger bear a few moments to clear his thoughts before he realized that the edge of the puddle was only two feet away at the most in any direction. You see? All he had to do is get up and walk to the edge and save himself.”

“So the bear was stupid?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You sure did!” Jimmy reached for the bottle that Teaspoon had brought down to the floor with them and poured another cup of his home brew. “You said the bear didn’t see the edge of the pool, that’s pretty stupid.”

Teaspoon’s nose scrunched up as he shrugged. “I just said he didn’t see the edge… maybe he’s smart, but he just needs spectacles!”

“Or,” growled Jimmy, “a swift kick in the pants.”

Raising a knowing brow, Teaspoon poured them both another drink.

 
*****

Jimmy shifted in his sleep, his dreams troubling. He felt like a steer gone to market, pressed in between a score of other cows in the confines of a train car. He’d seen the horrible display before, heard the lowing of the beasts and it didn’t sit well that he was now stuffed into the same predicament… what had he done?

Cracking an eye open he realized it wasn’t just a dream. It was a reality. A nightmare come to pass.

The room was littered with bodies.

Most of them were snoring to wake the devil.

And Jimmy’s head was pounding.

He blinked a few times, hoping that the bodies would disappear. Or at least his headache.

When he turned his head back toward the door he nearly hit his nose against the mug that was dangling from Teaspoon’s fingers. With a grunt of gratitude he took the mug and swallowed a huge gulp.

The scalding liquid seared the inside of his throat and while he coughed again and again the older man enthusiastically pounded his back… maybe too enthusiastically. Jimmy waved his hand trying to ward off the ‘aid’ that Teaspoon was offering.

“I’m fine… fine… stop!”

Teaspoon stepped back and gave him a long look. “Looks like you’re a bit confused, eh Hickok?”

“A bit?” Waving his hand at the room he gruffed out a few choice words. “You gonna tell me what the hell happened last night?”

Shrugging his shoulders, his smile a mere suggestion on his lips, Teaspoon gave Jimmy his answer. “You and I had a little talk-”

“I remember that! I’m talkin’ about the… the…”

“The floor covering?” Jimmy could tell by his mischievous grin that Teaspoon was enjoying every minute of his joke. “Oh all right…. They come and go, but mostly they find their way here. Some come for shelter… some for food… then there are those that come for a kind word and a smile.” The former station master looked over the sleeping group. “I guess they’re like my own flock of sheep to protect and guide.”

Jimmy raised a dubious brow.

Teaspoon looked aghast at Jimmy’s disbelief. “What?”

“Flock of sheep?”

“We’re told by God to protect those that can not do for themselves. These men… they come around when they need me… can I turn them away?”

“I worry you should be takin’ care of you. How do you know they’re not just using you for food… takin’ advantage.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years, son… God doesn’t make judgments like that. He takes ‘em… everyone that wants to be with him,” giving Jimmy a knowing look he went on, “it matters not what shape, size or color they are. It’s all about what’s inside that counts.”

For a moment, Jimmy considered the words, felt his lips relaxing in a smile… until the pounding in his head brought him back to reality. “I should have known that we couldn’t trust you by yourself. Give you enough time on your hands and you’ll start your own religion.”

“Start? Hell no, son. Oops…” he looked up at the statue above the altar and whispered a quick ‘Sorry,’ “I’m not makin’ myself out to be anything more than a man at the dawn of eternity who has learned a few good lessons… and bein’ as old as I am…. I’m ready to share that knowledge with others.” Giving his young friend a pointed look he added in the caveat. “Share it with folks that are willing to lend some weight to my words of advice… and not brush it off like the ramblings of an old man.”

Jimmy’s hangover couldn’t quite allow him to work up an expression that was truly contrite. “You know I value your words of advice, problem is I can’t usually understand what it is you’ve got to say… you pack it so full of fluff and sawdust I can’t find the real meaning in all of it.”

Teaspoon slowly lowered himself down amongst the sleeping masses and gave Jimmy a somber look. “Son, I’ve never tried to confuse any of you, but I remember what it was like when I was your age. I was full of spit and vinegar and the more a body told me not to do something… well, I wanted to do it, just to prove them wrong.” He paused and gave Jimmy a searching look. “I don’t supposed you can understand that, hmmm Hickok?”

There must have been a silly blush coloring his face because Teaspoon’s expression softened. “Wouldn’t have any idea what you’re talkin’ about.”

“Right.” He clapped a free hand down on Jimmy’s shoulder. “So to save myself a wagonload of frustration and you a whole lot of frettin’ over the issues, I tell you stories and when you’re ready to understand… it’ll be there.”

“What?”

“The answer?  An idea? I dunno, Hickok. That’s between you and that armor-plated noggin’ of yours. Me? I just dish it out… you have to eat it.”

Jimmy sputtered into his coffee and hastily wiped a drop sliding down from the corner of his mouth. “That doesn’t sound like any fun.” He set his mug down and gave Teaspoon a slow relaxed smile, “Another couple of nights drinkin’ that swill you pass for a ‘medicinal drink’ and I’ll most likely forget my own name. So, count me in.”

Teaspoon held up a finger to get Jimmy’s attention. “No, I don’t think so.”

That was not what Jimmy expected. “What did you say? I just offered to stay here and have some fun… keep you out of trouble.”

“You’re offering to hide and it ain’t gonna be here.”

That sobered him up, fast. “Then where exactly am I going to go?” He tried to ignore the scratch that his words left in his throat.

“Home, son… you need to go home.”

I hear people talk of heaven and how it's only for the precious few
But in the book that I've been readin' sounds to me like there's a lot of room
'cause in the Heaven I'm headed to; there's a place for preachers, thieves and prostitutes
Saints and soldiers, beggars, kings and renegades
Prodigal Son's Prayer

Belle looked into the mirror and tried not to cringe from the vision. The early morning light outlined each and everyone of her twenty six years on the earth, the worry, the pain, the longing… it was written like an old army map across her skin, deep furrows from the heavy hand of a man.

She lifted her hand to touch her cheek, wondering what it felt like to someone else, hard, weathered… or would someone find her skin soft, welcoming. The tear was unexpected; she’d thought she’d cried them all years ago, but there it was shimmering in the light, hanging just above her finger.

It would have been easy enough to wipe it away, a fingertip would have been enough to dash it away, but it didn’t seem to matter. She had too much on her mind. Too much to consider and her head was fairly bursting with her thoughts.

When Carrie had returned to the Saloon a few days ago Belle could tell that she was still hurting. She was a mess, covered in dust and brambles along the edge of her skirt, but she could meet Belle’s eyes when she walked in the door and for that, she was grateful.

Since that day and Emma’s visit, life went on as normal for the others at the Saloon, but for Belle, her mind had been consumed with her own thoughts, with the past… and with the future.  So many unanswered questions so many wishes gone awry.

“Mrs. Kingston?” The query was muffled through the door and barely audible.

“Yes? What is it?”

“There’s a man to see you.”

Standing up from her table, she crossed to the door and opened it quickly. “Who is it?”

“He said,” Kitty looked at the toes of her shoes as she tried to remember what it was exactly, “that you were waiting for him.”

*****
She opened the door to her office and froze, her gaze directed at the man standing before the window. His face and expression were shrouded with light; the late morning sun bathed everything on that end of the room in a blinding white wash and she watched him move. “What are you doing here?”

He looked up quickly and stepped into the shadows, moving toward her across the room. “I brought the papers you asked for, the deed to the Saloon and the homestead outside of town.”

“Oh, Mr. Garvey,” she laughed a bit, a little nervous giggle that belied her shock. “I’d almost forgotten that I asked you to stop by.” She sat down in her chair as he held it out from her desk. “Thank you.

He opened the folder and placed the papers before her, indicating with his fingers the locations where she’d have to sign. “It’s not the first time I’ve had someone change their name, I just didn’t realize,” he caught her measuring look and smiled reassuringly, “that your name… wasn’t your name after all.”

She picked up the pen from her desk, dipping it into the well and signing her name with a flourish. “Well, it was a bit of vanity on my part, I guess. I wanted a new start when I opened my business and there were so many new people coming into town at the time and pretty soon everyone called me Belle.

“Now, years later I had a realization,” she smiled, remembering the tearful hug she shared with Emma when she’d left, “it’s not the name that can make things different. I just needed to turn a corner and make the decision to move on with my life.”

Mr. Garvey blotted the ink and slid the document back into the folder. “I’ll file these at the courthouse and you’ll be… well, you.”

Belle stood and extended her hand to the solicitor. “Thank you so much for your help, Mr. Garvey. I hope,” she gave him a winning smile; “you’ll join me at the Saloon tonight as one of my guests.”

He waved off the idea. “I shouldn’t… it probably wouldn’t do to… uh,-”

“Be seen at the Saloon?”

The solicitor blushed to the roots of his hair. “I don’t mean any offense Mrs. Ki-“

“None taken, Mr. Garvey… and I’ll give your best to the Mayor when he stops by to play a few rounds of Poker this evening.”

“The Mayor?” The round lenses of his spectacles flashed as he turned to the window in surprise. “He plays poker? I play a little myself from time to time.”

“Good, I hear that he’s looking for a reliable fourth at the table… if you’re interested.”

“If?” His expression brightened in the dark room. “I dare say I would be honored to play… what time should I arrive?”

She filled him in on the details as she walked him to the door, her arm tucked lightly in his, her face free from lines for the first time in days.

*****

Jimmy reined his mount at the edge of town and fought with himself over the misgivings that threatened to turn him around. Threatened to make James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok turn tail and run.

Wild Bill didn’t run from ornery gunmen… he didn’t run from slavers… he didn’t run from insurmountable odds in a gunfight… but he could and had run from happiness. In fact, it had become survival for him. If you didn’t like your life too much… if you didn’t feel the overwhelming joy that could suck you under into contentment, then you didn’t hurt so much when the moment past. When the very thing you wanted more than life itself belonged to someone else.

“Coming or going?”

The voice startled Jimmy and he had to stay the movements of his mount as the tension of his own body leaked downward into the mare. “Mrs. Biddle, how are you?”

“It’s gettin’ cold and my back’s threatenin’ to turn into a pretzel if’n I have to keep at the woodpile any longer.”

“What happened to Willy Foster?”

She waved off the mention, her face puckered in frustration. “The boy ran off with one of Belle’s new girls… oh, she was fit to be tied. Had the whole place in an uproar… and the Marshal was running hither and yon tryin’ to find the two.”

“She didn’t want them to be happy?” He said the words, but he didn’t quite believe them… couldn’t. Not with her.

Mrs. Biddle poked his leg. “I didn’t say anything of the kind, Mister-gone-a-missing. What I said was she had everyone tryin’ to find them.”

“Yes?” The woman talked in circles even when he could understand her words.

“She wanted them home and safe; weren’t much more than that to the story. Didn’t matter what they wanted to do with their night-time, she wanted to know they had money to provide… couldn’t do much of that if’n they were missin’… now could we?”

“Yes… yes… I suppose.”

She shook her head, “Suppose. Humph, seems like all you young folks do is suppose.” Hoisting her shopping basket higher on her arm, Mrs. Biddle gave him a dismissive wave. “Suppose that you come home, suppose you want a life, suppose that a woman moves on… I can’t keep up with all the supposin’ goin’ on around me.”

*****

The door fairly flew off the hinges. “Jimmy you’re back!” That was all it took to empty out the entire saloon, or so it looked to a man worried over his reception. Eager hands grabbed at his saddle bags, nagging voices competed over the chance to tell him all the news and comings and goings since he’d left.

Carrie took his arm and steered him through the group and safely up the stairs to the door.  Swinging them both around she gave the assembled group a moment to quiet down when they protested her actions. “He’s tired. Give him a few moments to get settled and then you can descend on him like the bunch of magpies we are.”

Jimmy had to laugh with them as they conceded Carrie’s point. Mrs. Biddle’s niece swung the door open and held it for the rest as they marched up the stairs to deposit his things. “Well, you certainly have them in control…” he turned to her and looked at her face, noting the dark shadows beneath her eyes. “What happened?”

“I was dead set on bein’ stupid.”

“And then she stopped you.”

Carrie gave him a look that was more amazement than confusion. “Did she-”

He slung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “You know better’n that.”

“Are you home to stay?” They walked up the stairs, heading to his room with her head on his shoulder. “Or are you going to leave again?”  She stepped away from him when they reached the landing, folding her arms across her chest and lowering her gaze.

“That’s something I can’t answer yet.”

“Then when?”

Carrie started when the kitchen door slammed shut on the floor below. Jimmy leaned over the rail and smiled at the familiar voice that sounded through the house. “Where is everyone? We’re goin’ to have a busy night and there’s no one on the floor? Want a job?”

“Ummm yes, Miss Belle, I like my job.”

“Then get out there!”

Pushing away from the rail he gave Carrie a smile. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” An unintelligible shout came from below the stairs. “I’ll need some water.”

*****

A bath should have been a quick matter of a cloth, a cake of soap and a little splishing and splashing. Unlike other members of their Express family, Jimmy had never been one to sit and prune in a tub. Until tonight.

It had to be a combination of the long ride and the warm water that Carrie and a few other girls helped him carry up from the kitchen. He knew it wasn’t the overwhelming wafting perfume of lemons coming up from the water, he didn’t even like lemons. So it had to be the fact that he’d finally admitted the truth to himself, at least in some teeny little part of himself, he was home.

Leaning his head back on the raised edge of the tub he ignored the niggling doubts that worried the back of his mind and closed his eyes just for a moment.

*****

*BANG*

The explosion of sound had Jimmy scrambling for his gun, his sleep saturated brain forgetting for a moment where he was and what he was wearing.

“Jimmy!”

Or rather, what he wasn’t wearing.

“Holy sh-”

“Jimmy!” As he grabbed for a towel he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye. He’d startled her, probably more than she’d startled him, if he were to trust the flush coloring her skin. “What are you doing?”

Reaching over, Jimmy picked up the towel he’d laid over the back of a chair. “Well if it’s alright with you, I was-” he took his time wrapping the towel around his waist, “bathing!”

He knew by her sour expression that she didn’t like the wide wolfish grin he was sporting, and by the way she had her eyes glued to his forehead she wasn’t planning on admitting it. “So did you come in here for a reason? Or did you just plan on standing there with the door open so everyone can see the show?”

“What? Oh!”  Belle turned around and slammed the door shut with nearly as much force as she’d banged it open. “I didn’t mean to, it was… you just…”

“Startled you? I’d say the same, but you’d just go and tell me it’s my fault so let’s just get the niceties over with and say you missed me.” He stepped over the edge of the tub, and resisted the urge to dry off, the towel around his waist being the only one he had.

“Missed you?” He heard the rise of color in her voice so he didn’t have to see it on her face, but the way her knuckles turned white around the doorknob made him laugh. “Don’t you mock me, Hickok.” She whirled on him and he could see the spit of fire in her eyes. “Don’t you dare… not after… not when…” her fingers dug into her skirts, messing up the fancy drapes at the sides, “I can’t believe you… standing there… just standing there…” she pointed at his… feet, “dripping on my carpet.”

Jimmy looked down and wiggled his toes against the carpet. “Well, I could towel off,” he lifted his gaze , barely able to make out her figure between the wet strands of hair that fell from around his ears, “you wanna stand there while I do, or-“

She reached back and pulled the door open to step out, but whirled around at the last minute to give him a look. “Get dressed… we’re havin’ a full house tonight and you’ve been shirkin’ your duty long enough.”

Belle closed the door behind her, leaving him standing there, dripping and wondering if he should have kept riding.

*****

The noise was deafening in the Saloon by the time Jimmy came down, dressed up in his best suit. He’d left it thrown over the footboard of his bed when he’d left. He’d have to remember to thank Mrs. Biddle for the fine care she’d shown his things. 

Passing through the door way, Jimmy tipped his hat toward the gentleman at the first table that nearly fell over himself to stand up in his presence.  “Welcome, have yourself a good time tonight… just mind your manners with the girls.”

Nodding a little too quickly, the man sat down. “Yes sir, Mr. Hickok. I will."

Jimmy repeated the greeting as he walked around the room, earning himself the grateful smiles of all of Belle’s girls as they followed in his wake. The mayor offered him a seat at his table and Jimmy was sorely tempted when he caught site of the deck of cards laid out on the green felt. “Game night, Mr. Mayor?”

The older man chuckled and lifted his glass. “It’s Tuesday night, Hickok. You know its poker night on Tuesdays.”

“Maybe later, sir. I’ve got my job to do.”

Tipping his hat to the men at the table, Jimmy turned away so that the Mayor wouldn’t see the smile on his face. ‘Tuesday. Hell, for him every night is poker night.’
Charlie Akers paused and reached for his glass after he finished the last note of the song he was playing. “Long time no see, Hickok.”

“Not long enough if you’re still here, Charlie.”

That got a laugh. Charlie didn’t like it much. “I thought we made our peace, Hickok.”

“We’ll make our peace when you stop bein’ a man.”

Charlie hit his knee and pounded a sour note on the keyboard. “That ain’t never gonna happen, Hickok.”

“Sounds like the same answer that I’d give you, Charlie… so you just keep playin’ them pretty songs of yours, keep your hands off of the women, and I won’t break your fingers.”

Carrie walked up, putting a hand on his arm. “He’s been good since the last time, Jimmy. He ain’t never bothered us since then.”

“Good…  just make sure you keep it that way, Charlie. These girls tell me everything.”

Jimmy turned offering Carrie his arm, which she took gratefully. As they stepped away, Charlie piped up. “When you’re here.”

Ignoring the steadying pressure of Carrie’s arm, he turned around and gave Charlie a look that had sent better men riding home to mama. “I’m here, Charlie, don’t you make the mistake of thinkin’ I’m gonna turn my back ever again.”

Charlie’s eyes flickered like he was considering where to go… if he needed to.

Jimmy saw that he’d made his point clear. “Then you go right on back to playin’ and earn your keep. I’m watchin’.”

Swallowing a bit hard, he turned back to the piano. “Anything you’d like to hear, Mister Hickok?”

“Just play us something pretty, Charlie… something we can dance to.”

“We? Jimmy, are you askin’ me to dance?”

His attention was drawn away from Carrie as Belle stepped in through the door way. “I think Mrs. Kingston wouldn’t like me takin’ up your time, Carrie.”

“Oh, fine.” She gave him a glare but gave a smile to the next man passing by. “Have it your way, Jimmy.” The cowboy stopped and gladly took her arm from Hickok and Jimmy without a look back moved toward the door.

Belle had a way of quietly standing by and watching the world when she wanted to. There wasn’t much anyone could do to spot her when she was of a mind not to be seen. Still, Jimmy could see her. Had seen her from the moment she stepped off the stairs and into the doorway, and if he thought about it he was sure he could have sensed her on the second floor landing. She was always there, on the edge of his thoughts.

She stopped a step inside the doorway and met up with one of her girls, pausing to listen to a whispered comment before disappearing again.

He should have let it go. Should have let her go, but he couldn’t. Jimmy Hickok didn’t have enough sense to let stay, so he followed her down the hall and nearly ran into her coming out of the kitchen.

“Whoa, there.”

“Oh God, Jimmy,” she barely managed to keep the plate from ending up flat against his coat, “what were you thinkin’?”

“I was thinkin’,” he took a plate in one hand, “that you had something big on your mind and I should help.”

She grudgingly gave him the other plate and a half a smile. “With the exception of dirtying up your coat there, that was a great idea.  Thank you.” She darted back in the kitchen and popped back into the hall with another couple of plates. “Saves me the trip.”

Jimmy stepped to the side and let her walk by him; figuring he would need to follow her to find out the destination. “’sides, if you got food all over my jacket, I guess I could sweet-talk Mrs. Biddle into launderin’ it for me.”

“Really?” She looked back over her shoulder, “why her?”

Focusing his gaze on the curve of her hip, he nearly ran into the coat rack by the door. “Cause she, whoa… ‘cause she did such a nice job with this coat the first time.”

Belle paused with her hip against the door and a wicked twinkle in her eye. “You can thank Mrs. Biddle all you want, but all you’d most likely get from her is a blank stare and an order to get out of her kitchen.”

She pushed the door open and stepped through into the Saloon; Jimmy following quickly behind her. “What are you talkin’ about?”
Belle offered a greeting to the man at the head of the table and set a plate down in front of him. “Mister Mayor, here-”

“Belle, I thought we’d gotten past all of that. Yes?”

“Bob,” she smiled as she set down the other plate, “Chet. Good to see you all here.”

She took the plates from Jimmy and set them down on the table. “Mr. Garvey, I trust that you are enjoying yourself?”

Before the solicitor could answer, the Mayor gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Oh, he’s fittin’ right in. If I’m not careful, he’s going to take a lot of my money.”

“Just don’t get into any fights, now,” she cautioned, “or Mr. Hickok here will have to display his skill at breaking heads and busting jaws.”

She turned and walked away from the table leaving Jimmy to amend her statement.  “That’s bustin’ heads and breakin’ jaws… I really ought to get a calling card.” Tipping his hat, Jimmy left the table.

He trailed her through the mob of patrons milling about on any available foot of floor. “Hold up.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bronson… you’re more than welcome, come again.” She moved on, nearly swallowed up by a bunch of soldiers taking their leave seriously. “Hello… thank you for coming.”

“Hold up!”

She came to a stop just inside the hall. “Are we going to make this a habit, Jimmy?”

“What?” He was frustrated with her, avoiding his question. “A habit of what?”

“Nearly running into each other ever five steps? When you were gone I didn’t have to worry about the tips of my shoes.”

Jimmy took hold of her shoulders and pulled her into a corner by the door. “Then just answer my question.”

She looked down at one of his hands and then back up into his face. “If I knew it was bothering you so much, I’d have answered it right then in the middle of the Saloon.”

He stared down at her and waited.

And waited.

And waited again. “Well?” He leaned closer.

She leaned closer, too. “Well what?”

“The answer?”

Belle smiled wider. “I forgot the question.”

He growled and stepped back, flexing his hands over and over. “The coat… Mrs. Bi-”

“Oh!” Belle moved closer, stopping just behind him. “I did it.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know how to do laundry. I’ve been doing it for years. You too for that matter.” She ticked the years off on her fingers and held them up for him to see.

“Yeah, but I’ve gotten out of the habit and usually Mrs. Biddle-”

“Yes, but I was there and you weren’t… and someone has to pick up your messes.”
She froze, her shoulders shrinking a bit as she stood there. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Yeah, you should. You have every right.”

She shook her head. “I shouldn’t… I’m sorry, can we start again?”

Jimmy gently nudged her chin to get her to look up at him. “Again? Really, I-”

A creak of noise from the staircase gave them ample warning that they weren’t alone. She turned away and he let his hand drop to his side as two of the girls descended the stairs and disappeared into the main room of the Saloon. She moved to follow them, but Jimmy’s hand caught at her arm.

“Wait.”

She shook her head. “We’ve got a full house tonight and those folks expect me to make my rounds.”

“They’ll live.”

“Not my business… Jimmy, I’m glad you’re back. It’s been… different with you gone.”

“Different?” He lowered his hand when he heard the sour disappointment in his tone, but it paled in comparison to the knot in his middle. “I guess I deserved that. You’ve had your fill of people leavin’, Belle. Why should you feel any different about me?”

He could see her twisting with emotion, her face momentarily lost all color. “You never made me any promises, Jimmy. You never needed to. It’s not my place to ask, and-”

“You’d never ask me to stay.” She looked wounded, she looked tired. And he hated himself for it. “So what if I asked?”

“Asked? For what?”

“Can I stay?”

She looked like she was the recipient of the business end of a hornet. “This isn’t a joke, Jimmy. You can’t play with my mind like this… you can’t-”

“I’ve been playin’ up ‘til now, darlin’ and it’s got to stop sometime. I figure it’s gotta be me.  If you want. I’ll get down on my knees and beg… I’ll do it.”

“Jimmy, don’t.”

The door at the end of the hall swung open and Mrs. Biddle poked her head out. “Make him get down… show he means business, ‘cause I’m gettin’ an earful over here in the kitchen and it’s startin’ to make me sick.” She stared past Belle at Jimmy. “You know you got a place here, boy, don’t make her heartsick over this whole thing… or the next time you be wantin’ a warm bath, don’t come askin’ me.” The door swung shut, leaving them in relative silence again.

“We’ve got to talk.” They both said it… and they both waited for the answer. Eyes locked in a curious battle of wills they finally broke away and headed back to the main room. Truce or avoidance… one rarely knows at times like these.

Tell me there's mercy for the wanderin' soul
I lost my way but now I'm on my knees
If it's not too late won't you tell me please
You gotta place for me, a little grace for me
Long Trip Alone

Jimmy stood, taking special care to avoid the customary twinge in his back and took in the view. It was humbling, all the open space beyond the town… all the bounty of life spread out before them.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

He felt the beginnings of a smile tug at the corner of his lips. "Yeah, sure… "

She kept her eyes on the horizon, watching as the sun crawled up into the sky at its own pace. "I haven't been out here in so long… I'm surprised I even remembered how to get here."

Jimmy swept off his hat and turned it around and around in his hands. "Sometimes you just head in one direction and let the destination reveal itself in time."

He saw her quick glance at him, the way her shoulders tensed up a bit. "Is that what you do, Jimmy? Is that how you decide where you go… just turn your horse in a direction and go?"

She turned away and back to the sunrise, but the stubborn set of her jaw said she wasn't really looking at the beautiful golden sky before her. She was lost in thought just as much as he was cursing himself for shoving his boot back into his throat. "Sometimes I visit folks, folks I ain't seen in awhile. It's good to keep in touch."

Belle nodded, slowly. "I know. Had a visitor myself." The light tone of her voice said she was smiling even before he saw the upturn of her lips. "Emma said she'd seen you."

"Is that all she said?"

The flicker of a shadow was back in her face, weighing down her posture. "We had a long talk, about… everything… I had a few things that I needed to set straight for myself. For the future."

She started walking, a slow measured pace at first and then building when he kept up. "It was good for me, I think, talkin' to her like the years hadn't gone past us and the world… the world was a simpler place."

"Emma always does that," Jimmy agreed," puts things into perspective."

She stopped short and he had to move past her from the momentum and slowly he turned to see her, the sun warming the back of his frock coat.

"If I was a gambler," Belle offered, "I'd say she was a gypsy by birth with the way she looks right through me as if I was made of glass."

"Or the way she can smile at you and say somethin' real simple and still you feel like she's nailed you to the wall." Jimmy met Belle's gaze and for a moment it was like the years had melted away and they were just friends on a ride. Then the laughter took over and Jimmy soon found himself doubling over with his eyes watering.

Reaching out with his hand he found the ground beneath him with enough certainty to take a seat without landing on his head. He felt his rump connect with the hard packed dirt through the short lengths of grass. "I ain't laughed that hard since I had a little too much to drink with Teaspoon."

A hand touched his shoulder and her voice told him that she'd found a place to sit beside him. "You certainly did go visitin'." Her tone flattened as the laughter died on her lips. It must be fun to pick up and go whenever you want. I'm sure you… that soon you'll-"

"You think I'm gonna leave again."

She picked at an invisible piece of dirt on the hem of her skirt. "Just as sure as the sun's gonna fall asleep behind our backs, Jimmy." Her sigh lightened the hit of her words, but the look in her eyes flayed him to the quick. "It's somethin' I've learned to accept over the years."

Jimmy reached out a hand and plucked a blade of grass. "That's what I was comin' to back to tell you… I was comin' back to tell you that I ain't gonna do that anymore."

"Do what?" He knew he had to read lightly when he read the hope mixed with worry that he saw in her eyes.

"I ain't gonna leave like that again."

There was a moment of silence and the bottom of the sun finally lifted above the horizon with nearly an audible 'pop' of air. "Jimmy, this isn't funny, don't think you can just walk in and out of my life like-"

"I ain't gonna leave like that again, Lou… not anymore."

She didn't say anything to answer him… couldn't really when her lungs had seized in her chest and her eyes could only blink back a response.

"I've done my runnin', Lou… run away, run to, run in circles… I've done everything but put my feet down and take a chance on what I want. What I need more than life on the road."

She didn't ask him what he wanted. Didn't say anything really as her mind struggled to recognize her own feelings with the sound of her long-ago name echoing in her head.

Jimmy laid himself down beside her, his head pillowed on an arm he bent beneath it. "I know it ain't what you expected to hear, but it's true anyway." He watched a lonesome cloud float quickly by on unseen currents of air. "The whole time I was out there, hoppin' from one town to the next like a prairie dog, the one thought that came up again and again in my head was that I wished you'd been there. I wished that you'd sat down with me and Cody and played cards; that you'd been there to rescue me from Beth's lady friends and you'd probably be the only one that could make sense out of the story that Teaspoon tried to tell me."

She laughed a bit at that, but she didn't really look at him, her expression as guarded as she'd learned to do throughout the years.

"Mostly, when I'd lay my head down at night, or first thing in the morning like this, I'd wish I was lookin' up at you so I could see you smile."

Her laugh came out like a cough and her hand clutched the front of her blouse as though her heart was ready to burst through the fabric if she didn't hold it down. "I've heard you say pretty words like that before… a whole mess of women over the-"

"A whole mess of women that didn't mean a thing. It was just like one of Cody's shows… all fake and all for show. Why would I lie to you, Lou? I ain't got no reason to hurt you like that."

There it was. The truth. It lay there on the sunlit grass between them and a moment later he saw her hand reach out to him. "No you don't," she agreed.

He held her fingers lightly in his, twisting them and turning them ever so slightly so he could see them in the soft morning light.

She tried to pull them back, her nervous laughter trembling through her fingers into his. "They're rough… worn, Jimmy -"

Jimmy brushed his lips over the tips of her fingers and then slowly let them go, his eyes filled with the early morning light. "So're mine, darlin'… but that ain't sent you runnin' from me."

Lou shook her head. "No… I never would."

"Then if I asked you to… come with me-"

"Or you could come with 'me' to visit some friends." She turned toward the sunrise, her hands smoothing her skirts over her legs.

"Where ever you want to go." He sighed and felt the tension drain from his body, relaxing into the grassy expanse beneath his body. Slowly his eyes began to close as the soft currents of wind eased his mind.

"I want to see what's outside of this town… I want to see some old friends… at least now," his eyes saw the gentle curves of her face smiling down at him, her fingers sliding through his hair, "we don't have to go alone."

It's a long trip alone over sand and stone
That lie along the road that we all must travel down

So maybe you could walk with me a while
And maybe I could rest beneath your smile
Everybody stumbles sometimes and needs a hand to hold
'Cause it's a long trip alone

EMail Raye


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